Jan 29 2021

FETC 2021: Ensuring Security on Campus and Off

Whether concerns are emerging online or on school grounds, a mixture of technology and leadership will keep districts two steps ahead.

Ransomware, poorly updated software and insider threats: When something happens, who’s ultimately responsible?

According to Lenny Schad, the CIO and chief innovation officer for District Administration magazine, the answer is, “not just the IT team.”

Schad, who has a background in running IT departments for school districts in the Houston area, said cybersecurity requires consistent focus by district leadership, and must focus on both preparedness and response.

“Cybersecurity needs to be put in the same category as utilities and gas. It’s never going to be eligible for cuts, and we anticipate annual growth in that area every single year,” he said during a Friday-morning keynote at the 2021 Future of Education Technology Conference.

Schad emphasized that while IT departments often play a key role in cybersecurity response, management ties back to the superintendent and school board and often relies just as much on traditional leadership as it does technical solutions.

“Technology has a hand in solving cybersecurity and being accountable and having ownership for cybersecurity, but it’s a much broader topic that has multiple tentacles of ownership and accountability,” he said.

Breaking down the risk landscape, Schad emphasized that districts must accept that cybersecurity incidents will happen, and that steps must be taken to react and respond to those incidents. He pointed to factors such as the potential for insider threats that poor social media policies can open up, the increasingly distributed nature of the cloud and the emerging threat of internet of things devices outside of the purview of IT departments.

He also recommended that districts work on risk assessments to identify potential security issues as they emerge, using the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s Cybersecurity Framework as a starting point. Risk assessments can be concerning for IT departments, Schad said, but they are often a key preventative measure.

“You want everything to be uncovered as it relates to cybersecurity — good, bad or ugly — because this builds your story,” he said.

Response is another key, he said. A poor response to a cybersecurity incident can break trust with the broader community and lead to finger-pointing. He said that creating a detailed response plan that works with all levels of leadership is essential.

“Whether you think cyber is going to affect your district or not, every single one of you needs to work on your response,” he said.

Modern Cameras Help Ensure Physical Security

Of course, cybersecurity isn’t the only kind of security that many districts have to worry about. With many school districts using their facilities less often, challenges can emerge with the security of physical locations as well.

This is where security camera systems — many of which are far easier to manage than in the past — come in.

Ron Watson, the district technology director at New Jersey’s New Milford Public School District, explained during a Tuesday session that his district had implemented a solution to modernize the use of on-campus security cameras, making it easier to track onsite security issues over time. As Watson explained, older solutions such as the district’s former network video recording solution required a lot of manual work.

“To share the video, we would have to have someone come to my office, or go to another end user that had the software installed, sit at that desk, go through scrubbing that video we wanted to save, then save, then wait until it got downloaded and rendered onto the desktop, and then go ahead and play it that way,” he explained.

Working with the security camera company Verkada, the district now has a solution that implements artificial intelligence technology that can track when incidents happen in real time, can detect specific individuals or vehicles as they appear on multiple cameras and can be used to monitor issues remotely through its web-based interface.

The tool makes life easier from a management standpoint, Watson said.

“In the past — because we have four buildings, we have four different servers and four different locations with storage — we had to maintain that ourselves to make sure the storage wasn’t completely full,” he said.

The cloud-based nature of the tool helps ease remote access to the software so an insecure connection did not have to be maintained off campus, he said.

The tool also has the capability to detect when a system goes offline, which came in handy for Watson relatively recently when a tree fell onto the side of the district’s high school.

“The only way I actually knew the power was lost was actually because I was getting alerts from Verkada emailed to me saying, ‘Hey this kind of went offline,’” he said.

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sefa ozel/ Getty Images