Photo of students on computers highlights importance of safeguarding student data

The situation: a school fails in safeguarding student data and suffers a breach that exposes the personal information of thousands of its students.

The cause: a hacker exploited a vulnerability in the school’s online student information system, gaining unauthorized access to sensitive data.

The consequence: student names, addresses, dates of birth, and academic records were compromised and placed on the dark web, where it was being traded and sold for malicious purposes. Many students became victims of identity theft, experiencing fraudulent credit card transactions and unauthorized loans taken out in their names.

The above is an actual and recent incident, and the school district that experienced the breach is not alone. Schools are data rich targets with, in many cases, vulnerable systems, unsophisticated users, and vast network resources. This is why it’s important for districts to prioritize the privacy and security of student data.

The cost of a data breach is greater than dollars

Data breach incidents in schools can vary from year to year, and the number of breaches can depend on factors such as the level of cybersecurity measures implemented and the reporting practices of educational institutions. That said, in 2019 the New York City Department of Education (DOE) reported a data breach that exposed the personal information of approximately 100,000 students and staff members. The breach occurred through a third-party vendor responsible for managing student information systems.

At risk is the trust and reputation of the school. In the case mentioned above, parents and guardians lost faith in the school’s ability to protect the safety of their children’s data. Transfers increased and, because it was a case with high visibility, enrollment rates declined. Furthermore, the school faced considerable financial costs. They had to hire cybersecurity experts to investigate the breach, implement stronger security measures, and provide identity theft protection services to affected students. The legal implications were also significant, as the school faced potential lawsuits from affected families and regulatory authorities for failing to adequately protect student data.

Three tips to protect your school’s student data

Schools need to have an urgency in implementing robust data protection measures to safeguard student information. And these measures need to go beyond ticking off boxes on a mandated compliance check list. Why? Because information security is a journey, not a destination and therefor requires continuous attention and care.

Here are three things your school should be prioritizing:

  1. Protecting student privacy. Obvious, yes. Easy and well done, no. But Students and their families should have confidence their personal information will be handled responsibly and securely. Schools must implement stringent data protection policies, including encryption, access controls, and regular security audits. Additionally, schools should only collect necessary information and ensure it is used solely for educational purposes.
  2. Maintaining academic integrity. Student data is not only crucial for privacy but also for supporting academic progress and personalized learning. By collecting and analyzing data, educators can gain valuable insights into student performance, identify areas of improvement, and provide targeted interventions. However, this data must be protected to prevent misuse or unauthorized access. When student information is kept secure, teachers can use it to tailor instruction, personalize learning experiences, and promote academic success.
  1. Ensuring data security. Schools need to be investing (and state governments providing funding to make these investments) in robust cybersecurity measures, conducting regular security assessments, and providing comprehensive staff training on data protection protocols. Encryption should be employed to safeguard data both at rest and in transit to prevent unauthorized individuals from accessing sensitive information. Schools must also establish clear data retention policies, disposing of data in a secure and timely manner when it is no longer needed. Implementing multi-factor authentication, firewalls, and intrusion detection systems are additional security measures that can help fortify data protection efforts.

Better to be proactive that reactive—and late

The importance of protecting student data in K-12 education cannot be overstated. Safeguarding student privacy not only ensures the integrity of educational institutions but also upholds the trust of students, parents, and the wider community. By acknowledging the risks associated with data breaches, prioritizing privacy, and implementing robust security measures, schools can create a safe and secure environment for students to learn and grow.

At Garnet River, we developed a program and platform in response to Part 121 of New York State Ed Law Section 2-D, which requires New York school districts to meet a set of standards around school data security and privacy. Our goal in safeguarding student data is not to help schools meet the standards, but to exceed them. Because  security is a journey, not a destination—and mapping progress and remediating issues along the way should be your guiding framework.

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