Cybercrime is a harsh reality that affects organizations of all shapes and sizes, including public school districts. And as hackers become bolder and more sophisticated, data privacy is taking center stage as a critical concern for many schools.
IT and communications experts are on the front lines, defending students, faculty, and staff from these threats, and despite their best efforts, user error still causes 95% of the cyber breaches around the world — and there’s no sign of it slowing down anytime soon. Between 2021-2022, the number of U.S. schools affected by cyber threats nearly doubled.
Open-source websites for schools, like Drupal and WordPress. continue to present threats to data security, opening up the digital doors to malware and ransomware attacks. In an all-too-common tale, hackers recently exploited a critical loophole in a popular WordPress plugin that jeopardized 12 million sites powered by the WordPress content management system, one of the most popular open-source solutions.
It's more important than ever to prioritize data privacy and cybersecurity best practices for districts. Since the pandemic, K–12 schools and school districts alike have adopted so many additional networking technologies that assisted with learning but also posed a huge threat to cybersecurity for school districts.
In 2021, the K–12 Cybersecurity Act was signed into law, shedding light on how districts can support their cybersecurity to better protect personally identifiable information in their systems. One takeaway was that change must come from the top down — school leaders need to establish and reinforce a culture of proactive cybersecurity.
But data privacy for school districts is really a team sport, so how can IT, school leadership, and families work together, remain vigilant, and keep your school district safe and secure?
Let's learn how communications and IT experts can prioritize digital safety in your school district.
Understanding Data Privacy
First off, let's clarify what data privacy is all about and how school districts use data. In a nutshell, it's the protection of sensitive information about students, faculty, and staff from unauthorized access, use, or disclosure.
This is crucial not only to maintain trust within your community but also to comply with the legal and ethical obligations your school district has.
Relevant School District Data Policies, Privacy Laws, and Regulations
Understanding the various data privacy laws and regulations that affect your district is crucial. Here comes a wave of acronyms...
- FERPA (Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act): This federal law governs the access and disclosure of student education records. It grants parents the right to access their child's records, request corrections, and control the disclosure of the information to third parties.
- COPPA (Children's Online Privacy Protection Act): This law specifically deals with the collection of personal information from kids under 13 years old by websites and online services. It requires parental consent before collecting, using, or disclosing such information.
- GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation): Although this regulation primarily applies to EU countries, it's relevant if your school district serves EU students or staff. GDPR covers data protection and privacy, including the rights of individuals to access, correct, and delete their personal data. It’s a shared sentiment that transcends borders, however — overseas in Europe, 67% of consumers have left a website over concerns about how their data is used.
- Specific laws and regulations in your state: These vary by location, so it's important to familiarize yourself with the ones that apply to your district. Examples include the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) and the New York State Education Law Section 2-d.
Make sure you're well-versed in these regulations to ensure compliance!
Northwest Independent School District has a Privacy Pledge to families — a commitment to prioritize the safety of student data privacy and online safety. The district outlines what data it does collect and why, and reviews many of the laws and standards it abides by — love it!
Keep Reading: Here's Why Schools Are Perfect Targets for Hackers
Understanding Data Privacy and its Importance to Your District and Families
Let's revisit the concept of data privacy and understand why it's so vital for your district and the families you serve. Protecting data is essential for several reasons:
- Trust: Families entrust schools with the personal information of their children. Ensuring data privacy helps maintain and build trust between your district, students, and their families.
- Legal and Ethical Obligations: School districts have a legal and ethical responsibility to protect the personal information of all individuals within the district.
- Reputation: A strong data privacy program demonstrates that your district takes the matter seriously, which can boost your district's overall reputation. That's a win/win.
- Security: With the rise of cyber security in schools, having robust data privacy measures in place can help protect your district from breaches, which can be costly and damaging.
Suffield Public Schools outlines the data privacy of its district, as well as the approved, and unapproved, resources for students and educators. It’s a nice way to identify what has been identified as appropriate technologies for use inside and outside the classroom and better protect student data.
Data Collection and Management Best Practices
When it comes to managing sensitive data, here are some handy best practices to follow:
- Minimize data collection by only gathering what's necessary.
- Store and secure data properly, using encryption and other protective measures.
- Implement access control policies to limit who can view and modify data — very helpful when you have admin control over your district’s web users and pages!
- Regularly monitor and update your security measures to stay ahead of potential threats.
Pleasant Unified School District presents an overview of its tech tools and all it’s implemented to protect the privacy of students and families. There’s also an opt-out list for apps provided through its student handbook for families who want that option.
Communicating Data Privacy Policies and Practices
Communication plays a pivotal role in your data privacy program. Here's a more detailed look at how to effectively communicate your policies and practices each school year:
- Develop clear and concise privacy policies: Create clear policies that cover the types of data you collect, how it's used, and the measures in place to protect it. Make these policies easily accessible to stakeholders through your district's website and other communication channels.
- Educate faculty, staff, and students: Offer training sessions, workshops, or online resources to educate everyone in the district about data privacy. Make sure they understand their role in protecting sensitive student information and the steps they should take if they suspect a breach.
- Engage with parents and guardians: Host informational sessions or distribute materials that explain the importance of data privacy, the policies in place, and how parents can support these efforts. Open channels of communication for parents to ask questions or voice concerns.
- Address concerns and questions promptly: When community members raise concerns or questions, respond in a timely, transparent, and empathetic manner. This will help maintain trust and demonstrate that your district is committed to data privacy.
- Collaborate with other departments: Work closely with other departments, such as IT, legal, and administration, to ensure a unified approach to data privacy. This collaboration can help identify potential gaps and streamline your district's overall data privacy efforts.
Responding to Threats
In case the worst happens, be prepared with a solid data breach response plan that includes:
- Communicating with affected individuals and stakeholders about the incident.
- Reporting breaches to relevant authorities, as required by law.
- Learning from incidents to strengthen your security measures moving forward.
As always, be sure to consult any legal representation!
Keep Reading: The Real Cost of an Open-Source Website Hack
The Role of Third-party Vendors
Don't forget about the vendors you work with, as they play a critical role in data privacy, too.
Make sure to:
- Assess their data privacy practices before entering into contracts.
- Establish clear expectations and include them in your contracts.
- Regularly review vendor compliance and collaborate to improve security where needed.
Keep an eye on emerging trends and technologies, as well as evolving laws and regulations. As a PR professional, you'll play a key role in shaping your school's data privacy practices, so staying informed is essential.
By understanding data privacy, following best practices, and staying proactive, you'll be well-equipped to tackle the challenges that come with safeguarding sensitive information in your school district.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Connor has spent the last decade within the field of marketing and communications, working with independent schools and colleges throughout New England. As Finalsite’s Senior Content Marketing Manager, Connor plans and executes marketing strategies and digital content across the web. A former photojournalist, he has a passion for digital media, storytelling, coffee, and creating content that connects.