Best practices for keeping students safe

The incident was a shock to the system. Hit by a ransomware attack, the Victor Central School District (VCSD), located just outside of Rochester, New York, had to virtually shut down its entire system last year. Schools in the district were not even able to hold in-person classes. Administrators and parents likened it to being held hostage, as officials began transitioning their daily duties from school-related activities to fielding inquiries from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

While you do not want to go as far as to call these types of circumstances day-in-the-life scenarios, ransomware attacks are becoming an all too frequent part of the game for today’s K-12 and higher education sectors. Even more interesting is that while they may be extremely vulnerable, they also are among the most cybersecurity ready.

According to Immersive Labs’ “Cyber Workforce Benchmark 2022” report, the education sector is the most likely to pay ransoms in hypothetical situations, with 25% of teams relenting to ransom demands. For comparison sake, only 13% in financial services and 0% in infrastructure paid the hypothetical ransoms.

That makes the next statistic even more troubling. After the numbers were tallied, 2020 was a “record-breaking” year for cyberattacks against U.S. schools, according to the K-12 Cybersecurity Resource Center. The center’s K-12 Cyber Incident Map recorded 408 publicized school cyberattacks in 2020, representing an 18% increase over 2019. This prompted the FBI to release a joint report with other federal agencies warning that K-12 schools had become the No. 1 target for ransomware attacks.

Not to pile on, but K-12 has experienced 1,331 reported cybersecurity-related incidents since 2016, according to the “The State of K-12 Cybersecurity,” published by nonprofit K12 Security Information Exchange, which works to protect K-12 schools from cyberattacks.

All of this is just part of a growing number of concerns facing K-12 students and their parents, especially as the landscape continues to find its way in a post-pandemic world. “Since the pandemic, we have had to research and implement new strategies for dealing with increased safety in both mental health and cyber security,” says Kristen Schwalm, Principal at Saint Kilian Parish School. Located in Cranberry Township, Saint Kilian is the largest Catholic primary school in the Diocese of Pittsburgh.

“Since the pandemic, we have had to research and implement new strategies for dealing with increased safety in both mental health and cyber security.”

— Kristen Schwalm, Principal, Saint Kilian Parish School

Schwalm says that with the increase in the use of technology, especially in the younger grades, Saint Kilian has had to take a proactive approach in upgrading its internet filter, implementing monitoring programs and even adding cyber-safety lessons into the curriculum.

“The students’ safety, both physically and mentally, is very important to Saint Kilian Parish School,” Schwalm says. “Our underlying concern within the school is internet safety and the students’ comprehension of how to use it appropriately. We provided more instruction, practices and informational meetings for our educators and students. This helped enhance their awareness and created a deeper understanding of issues that arise on the cyber platform.”

One of the biggest challenges regarding the implementation and teaching of safety issues within today’s schools is that technology is constantly evolving. Once an administration resolves one situation, another pops up, causing new issues to solve and more technology to update. The question really becomes whether K-12 schools have all the resources and funding to keep up with the race. “K-12 administrations in the current landscape must continue to educate themselves and their staff, while continuously revising the schools’ plan for any new challenges,” Schwalm says. “This enables you to be proactive and help continue to ensure the safety of the students.”

As with any program on the K-12 docket, communication is the most critical step in the planning and implementation process. Communicating information to students, families, community stakeholders and emergency responders is crucial to ensure that if an emergency does occur, the best possible outcomes will be achieved.

Issues will always abound

The data from a modeling study published in Pediatrics, a journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, said it all. In a K-12 landscape that carries issues such as student safety, cybersecurity threats and others, the “COVID-19–Associated Orphanhood and Caregiver Death in the United States” report found that about 120,000 children in the U.S. lost a primary caregiver due to a pandemic-associated death.

Even more grim, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found racial and ethnic disparities in caregiver deaths were significant: one caregiver for every 310 Black children, one for every 412 Hispanic children and one for every 753 white children. These are the types of findings that, when intrinsically translated to communities across the country, add to the challenges of K-12 administrators.

Already a community resource across a variety of fronts, K-12 administrators are having to step up their games on a new front. “Student safety is No. 1 for everyone,” says Matthew W. Colpitts, EdD, CPP, Safety Consultant, Joffe Emergency Services. “Schools have an important role in society and have the ‘in loco parentis’ (in place of parent) role. While students are on campus, it means that schools need to take safety, including risk management, seriously. One of the biggest challenges we see is that schools are so busy that they can have a hard time thinking beyond the immediate challenges of running a school. There often is not enough support or resources dedicated to holistic school safety.”

“Schools have an important role in society and have the ‘in loco parentis’ (in place of parent) role. While students are on campus, it means that schools need to take safety, including risk management, seriously.”

— Matthew W. Colpitts, EdD, CPP, Safety Consultant, Joffe Emergency Services

Joffe Emergency Services is designed to help make schools, institutions, and public gatherings safe and secure for the people who attend them. The firm provides security, safety and medical support services to empower schools, and event venues and organizers. “School safety and security are like anything else,” Dr. Colpitts says. “If it is something that is truly valued, it would be reflected in budgets and schedules. If it is not reflected there, can an organization say that it is valued?”

Regardless of the situation that school administrators face, the end result always comes down to if you are prepared and if you can implement your preparedness plan. Dr. Colpitts says that understanding and buy-in are the most important elements. “Having buy-in from the leadership, especially the principal or head of school, is No. 1. Buy-in that is partnered with an understanding of what the real issues are will help a school make a lot of progress.”

For any situation, Joffe Emergency Services offers this three-point plan:

Form a Collaborative Planning Team — There are people on your campus and in your community who are interested in school safety and who can help you. They also can provide perspectives that school leaders do not have. A collaborative team also can assist with buy-in and culture across the school. 

Understand the Situation — You and your team should review the issues, vulnerabilities and hazards you face on campus and prioritize what must be addressed. This is where outside experts and safety consultants are valuable. It can be hard to see your problems.

Determine Goals and Objectives — Once the situation is understood, you and your teams can start to set goals and prioritize. 

“For personal safety, school leaders should be staying up to date with safety and security issues that are happening in their schools, communities and peer schools,” Dr. Colpitts says. “We can learn a lot from what others are dealing with. School leaders should not wait until an issue comes to their campus before learning lessons and making improvements.”

In a time of great change for the K-12 community, maintaining best practices remains a must.