The Biggest Cybersecurity Threats in K-12

K-12 schools are a growing target of cybersecurity breaches. Here are the biggest threats to educational institutions and how to counter those vulnerabilities.

As part of National Cybersecurity Awareness Month (NCSAM), we’ve been sharing with you some cybersecurity best practices around “owning” security, the theme for 2019. In our post, we recommended reinforcing security best practices with automation: to enforce minimum standards and configurations, apply patches, and self-heal critical security applications. These recommendations reflect the fact that people – any end user, from employee to student – are the top cybersecurity risk. In this post, we’ll detail more about the ‘people’ risk in K-12.

Top K-12 Cybersecurity Threats

According to research from the K-12 Cybersecurity Resource Center, a school district in the US is a victim of a cyberattack every three days. Of the 122 cybersecurity incidents experienced last year, 46.7% were attributed to unauthorized disclosures, hacks, or breaches – with staff or students the primary cause of such incidents.


For the 23% of data breaches that are malicious in intent by outside actors, phishing is the top technique to gain access. As the black market price for school records now ranges from $250 to $350, we’re seeing an increase in sophisticated phishing attacks, including scams directed to school district business officials redirecting funds from legitimate partners, contractors, or during tax season.

Malware and ransomware

Although these represented only 15% of cyber incidents, they were among the most time consuming and costly to deal with, with other reports suggesting that education and K-12 are the top targets for the most sophisticated malware and trojans.

Improving K-12 cybersecurity requires a trifold approach that addresses technology, policy, and the ‘people’ factor behind security incidents. As mentioned in our earlier post, technology solutions can enforce and enhance security policies and best practices.

To minimize the risk of cybersecurity threats in K-12 school districts, we recommend:

  • Ensure all devices have security software, including BYOD devices and mobile devices that have access to student data
  • Ensure you have visibility over all devices, whether they are used on school networks or taken home
  • Ensure operating systems and software applications are regularly updated, with the ability to push updates if a critical vulnerability is identified
  • Ensure critical applications can self-heal – after all, if a student can remove content filtering or if malware triggers an uninstall of anti-malware solutions, what purpose did these solutions serve?
  • Ensure student data is encrypted in transit and at rest
  • Only use COPPA-compliant software, with restrictions on student devices that prevent the installation of non-approved software
  • Include cybersecurity best practices as part of professional development and digital citizenship curriculum, ideally extending online safety and security information to families

Campaigns such as this month’s #NCSAM provide an opportunity for educators to integrate cybersecurity tips into the curriculum for students and, ideally, for families as well. To learn more about how to support your K-12 staff and students with technology that fills some of the top areas of weak user behavior, contact us.

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