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Resources > Cyberattacks > K-12 Ransomware Cybersecurity—Exploring the Threat Landscape

K-12 Ransomware Cybersecurity—Exploring the Threat Landscape

Schools today face an increasing threat of cyberattacks, such as ransomware, that can compromise sensitive data. Whether it’s a targeted attack or an accidental leak, cyber incidents can affect learning and jeopardize operations. According to a 2023 survey, 80% of lower education institutions surveyed—including American K-12 schools—were targeted by ransomware that threatened to expose student and employee data and disrupted learning.

As a school administrator, teacher, or parent, it’s crucial to understand the dangers of ransomware and take steps to prevent infection. This comprehensive guide highlights the main cyber threats for schools and their impacts, as well as the best K-12 ransomware cybersecurity practices to safeguard students’ and staff’s personal information.

Why Is Cybersecurity So Important for Schools?

Schools contain a wealth of sensitive data that makes them prime targets for cybercriminals. Student and staff information like Social Security numbers (SSNs), medical records, and financial data can be exploited for identity theft or fraud. Protecting this information should be a top priority for any educational institution.

Cyberattacks on schools are increasing at an alarming rate. Ransomware attacks, in particular, have become more frequent and disruptive. For schools, this could mean being locked out of:

  • Email
  • Student records
  • Security cameras
  • Attendance systems

The costs to recover from such an attack are enormous, both financially and in terms of damaged reputation. As students and staff rely heavily on technology for learning and school operations, a successful cyberattack could cripple a school’s ability to function for days or even weeks.

Schools must implement strong defenses to reduce the likelihood of a cyberattack and have an incident response plan in place in case one still occurs.

Major Cyber Threats Targeting K-12 Schools

K-12 schools continue to be major targets of cyber threats like ransomware. As technology becomes increasingly integrated into schools, the potential attack surface grows—that’s why it’s critical for K-12 institutions to understand the threat landscape and implement strong security practices. Here are the common cyber threats K-12 schools face:

  1. Ransomware
  2. Phishing
  3. Data breaches
  4. Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks


Ransomware is malicious software that locks you out of your computer or files until a ransom is paid. Hackers frequently target schools with ransomware because they’re more likely to pay the ransom to recover access to critical systems and data. Schools should implement strong data backup policies, user education, and other best practices to mitigate ransomware attacks.


Phishing refers to fraudulent communications like emails, phone calls, or texts attempting to steal sensitive data or install malware. Hackers often pose as legitimate companies or trusted contacts to trick users into clicking on links, downloading attachments, or providing account access. Educating students, faculty, and staff on how to spot and report phishing attempts is key to avoiding these risks.

Data Breaches

Schools store large amounts of sensitive data of students, families, and employees. This data can be a prime target for hackers aiming to steal personal information for identity theft or selling it on the dark web. For this reason, schools must follow data security best practices like encrypting sensitive data, limiting access, and monitoring for breaches. They should also provide resources for victims of data breaches to monitor for identity theft.

Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) Attacks

DDoS attacks attempt to overwhelm a network or website with fake traffic to take it offline. They’re frequently used as diversions to hide other malicious cyber activity. Schools should implement DDoS prevention and mitigation tools like firewalls to block suspicious traffic and keep critical systems available during an attack.

The Impact of Ransomware on K-12 Schools and Students

Ransomware attacks on K-12 schools can be devastating, as they can disrupt learning and operations. As schools have increased their use of technology for learning and administration, they’ve also become targets for cybercriminals looking to make easy money. Here’s an overview of the consequences associated with ransomware attacks in K-12 schools:

  1. Operations interfering
  2. Privacy and security concerns
  3. Learning disruption
  4. Loss of funds

Operations Interfering

When ransomware infects a school’s network, it blocks access to files and data. This hampers the ability for teachers to distribute lessons, for students to turn in assignments, and for administrators to access critical records. The time needed to recover from such an attack can vary depending on the school’s willingness to pay the ransom and the availability of backups, so operations can sometimes be disrupted for prolonged periods.

Privacy and Security Concerns

Ransomware threatens the privacy of students, teachers, and staff by encrypting sensitive data like their SSNs, medical records, and financial information. Even after the ransom is paid, there’s no guarantee that hackers will provide a decryption key, leaving sensitive data compromised indefinitely.

Learning Disruption

The learning process relies heavily on technology, from interactive whiteboards to student laptops to online portals. When ransomware cuts off access, it significantly disrupts student learning. For low-income students without access to technology at home, it can be especially damaging. The time required to recover and restore systems also results in lost instructional hours that can be difficult to make up.

Some schools choose to pay the ransom to restore access quickly, while others refuse to pay, taking days or weeks to restore from backups. In any case, students lose valuable time and resources. This way, ransomware can also damage students’ and parents’ trust in the school’s ability to keep critical systems and data secure.

Loss of Funds

Recovering from a ransomware attack is often a long process that costs schools thousands of dollars in IT support, legal fees, and lost productivity. Some schools have had to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for ransoms to retrieve their data, diverting funds away from educational programs, resources, and teacher salaries.

Best Cybersecurity Practices for K-12 Ransomware

To improve cybersecurity in K-12 schools, administrators and IT staff should focus on a multi-layered approach with both human and technical controls. Here are the crucial steps for combating ransomware in K-12:

  1. Educating users
  2. Backing up critical data
  3. Restricting permission
  4. Installing security software

Educating Users

According to a study by IBM, human error remains a top contributor to cybersecurity breaches. Staff and students are often oblivious to the cyber threats around them, increasing the vulnerability of sensitive data to hackers and cybercriminals. For enhanced security, it’s important to train staff and students on cyber hygiene best practices, such as strong password creation, the use of multi-factor authentication, and safe browsing habits.

Backing Up Critical Data

Schools should regularly back up all critical data, systems, and servers in case of infection. Using offline or cloud backups is the best option because ransomware can’t reach them. With reliable backups, schools can restore copies of critical files, such as:

  • Student enrollment information
  • Examination results
  • Research data

Restricting Permissions

Schools should only give users the level of network access they require to do their jobs and limit admin accounts and permissions as much as possible. If ransomware infects a system, restricted permissions will limit its ability to spread.

Installing Security Software

Besides focusing on perimeter security, schools also need to be aware of what’s going on within the network. Security software like firewalls monitors for infections and blocks threats. Schools should choose reputable products and keep them up to date. Some security software also offer specific anti-ransomware functionality, which can prove helpful.

With these measures, schools can protect their sensitive data from increasing cyber threats. But as a parent, you’re also responsible for protecting your child’s sensitive data—especially since a child’s identity is stolen every 30 seconds. For extra security, consider signing up for identity protection services like FreeKick to get continuous identity monitoring and ensure your whole family’s personal information is secure.

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When you sign up for an account, you’ll have access to all the ID monitoring services FreeKick offers, including:

Services for Adult Children and ParentsServices for Minor Children
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Parent-Sponsored Credit Building

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Establishing a credit history for your child at an early stage enhances their credit score progressively, enabling them to leverage the advantages of good credit in the future—it can potentially save your child more than $200,000 over their lifetime.

While accessing credit options can pose a challenge for many students, FreeKick provides a solution that considerably boosts your child’s future financial health with a straightforward process:

  1. Create an Account—Visit FreeKick.bank and choose a suitable plan to activate your account. From the dashboard, you can initiate the credit-building process for your child. Upon reaching legal age, your child should enable credit reporting. If they are already an adult, FreeKick will automatically report their credit information to the three major consumer credit bureaus—Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion
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FreeKick Pricing

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FDIC-Insured Deposit AmountPlan Fee

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