Arkansas Provides K-12 Districts With Volunteer IT Team to Fight Cyber Attacks

By Michelle R. Davis — November 01, 2019 2 min read
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Arkansas school districts experiencing cyber attacks can now turn to a strike team of technology volunteers to help them grapple with hackings, data breaches and cybersecurity incidents.

The P-12 Cyber Threat Response Team, which will provide districts with on-site support at no cost, was created by the Division of Elementary and Secondary Education within the Arkansas Department of Education.

About 230 of the state’s 260 school districts are rural and many often only have one-person technology departments, said Ray Girdler, the director of technology initiatives and resources in the elementary and secondary education division.

Many districts are reluctant to ask for help when they experience a cybersecurity incident because they are embarrassed, worry they did something wrong or don’t want to cause panic among students or parents, Girdler said.

“Everyone is keeping these things hush-hush, but we hear all kinds of things,” he said. “No one should feel alone when they’re experiencing a cyber attack.”

The volunteers are IT professionals, many who come from the state’s education service cooperatives which already support districts around technology issues, and will be on-call to travel to districts and respond to cyber emergencies, Girdler said.

Concern From Districts Rising

Cybersecurity is a growing source of worry for K-12 schools. A 2019 survey of school district tech leaders found that cybersecurity was their top concern for the second straight year. The K-12 Cybersecurity Resource Center found that during 2018 there were 122 publicly disclosed cybersecurity incidents that affected K-12 education agencies across 38 states.

Those types of incidents disrupt the school day, the educational process and even bus routes, Girdler said. Once activated, the cyber threat team will send “first responders” to help “isolate the incident, assess the situation, recover network/data/systems when possible, and implement prevention strategies,” according to the threat response team web site.

Girdler said through this effort he hopes to collect data about how often Arkansas schools and districts are dealing with serious cyber incidents and to increase communication about how to prevent and deal with attacks. That data will be kept confidential, he said.

“It’s really hard to gauge how many districts are having problems,” he said. “As an education culture, we’re not sharing this information.”

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.