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Resources > Cyberattacks > School Data Breach—Causes, Consequences, and Solutions

School Data Breach—Causes, Consequences, and Solutions

School data breaches have become an unfortunate reality, exposing students’ personal information and impacting their privacy and security. As technology has become more integrated into the classroom, the amount of data collected and stored has grown exponentially. This data is an attractive target for hackers and cybercriminals, putting it at constant risk of exposure.

This article will cover everything you need to know about a school data breach, including how it occurs and what schools can do to safeguard personal information.

What Is a School Data Breach?

A school data breach occurs when sensitive student or staff information stored on a school’s network or servers is accessed or stolen by unauthorized individuals. This may include:

  • Personal details like names, addresses, dates of birth, and Social Security numbers (SSNs)
  • Students’ grades, test scores, disciplinary records, and other academic information
  • School financial data, such as library fees, lunch balances, and tuition payments

How Do School Data Breaches Happen?

School data breaches happen in various ways, often due to vulnerabilities in a school’s digital infrastructure. As hackers are constantly scanning networks for weak spots to exploit, data breaches can occur as a result of any of the following:

  1. Outdated software
  2. Weak passwords
  3. Phishing emails
  4. Lost or stolen devices
  5. Ransomware attacks
  6. Third-party vendors
  7. Lack of security awareness

Outdated Software

Schools frequently use older operating systems and software to save money. However, older systems are more prone to security flaws that haven’t been patched. Hackers can gain access through these unfixed vulnerabilities, so modernizing infrastructure and keeping software up to date is crucial.

Weak Passwords

Simple or reused passwords are easily cracked. If a staff member uses the same weak password for multiple accounts, it only takes one breach to compromise the whole network. Enforcing strong, unique passwords for all accounts helps prevent unauthorized access.

Phishing Emails

Phishing emails with malicious links or attachments are a common cyberattack method. If a staff member clicks on a suspicious link or downloads an infected attachment, it can secretly install malware to steal data or take control of the system. Conducting phishing simulation tests and training staff to spot phishing attempts reduces the risk of a successful phishing attack.

Lost or Stolen Devices

Laptops, tablets, and USB drives that contain unencrypted sensitive data can be a liability if lost or stolen. Enabling hard drive encryption and two-factor authentication on all devices can help ensure data can’t be accessed by unauthorized individuals in case of physical theft or loss.

Ransomware Attacks

Hackers may attack a school’s network with malicious software that encrypts data and holds it hostage until a ransom is paid to decrypt it. Schools are attractive targets since they contain sensitive data and may be more willing to pay to recover it.

Third-Party Vendors

Schools frequently share student and staff information with third-party service providers like bus companies, healthcare providers, and education software vendors. If any of those partners experience a breach, school data is compromised as well.

Carefully vetting vendors, limiting access to only necessary data, and ensuring strong security controls in third-party agreements can help reduce this risk.

Lack of Security Awareness

If staff and students aren’t trained on security best practices, they can unwittingly jeopardize data. Common issues that can cause vulnerability to data breaches include weak passwords, phishing emails, unencrypted devices, and unsecured Wi-Fi networks. Conducting regular cybersecurity training and simulated phishing campaigns can help build awareness and change behavior in the long run.

What Are the Consequences of Data Breaches?

Business men sitting at the lawyers’s desk. People signing important documents.

Data breaches can have serious consequences for schools and students. This includes:

Consequence of Data BreachWhat It Entails
Identity theftPersonal information in the wrong hands can be used for fraudulent activities
LawsuitsAffected parties may take legal action against the school for failing to protect data
Damaged reputationParents and other stakeholders may lose trust in the school, which could hurt enrollment and funding
Interrupted learningData breaches can lead to shutdown of operations, interrupting learning activities. In some cases, schools may close down entirely

Notable School District Data Breach Examples

Unfortunately, data breaches involving sensitive student information are becoming more common. Even with privacy laws like the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) in place, some schools still struggle to properly secure students’ personal data. A few notable examples of major school district data breaches include:

  1. Prince George’s County Public Schools, Md.
  2. New Haven Public Schools, Conn.
  3. Minneapolis Public Schools

Prince George’s County Public Schools, Md.

In August this year, the Prince George’s County Public Schools in Maryland announced a data breach impacting about 4,500 users. The attack involved an unauthorized user accessing sensitive data, including students’ and employees’ usernames and passwords. Exercising caution, the school forced a reset of passwords for all employees and students and engaged a specialist to investigate the scope of the breach.

New Haven Public Schools, Conn.

The New Haven school district in Connecticut got hit hard when hackers managed to break into the email account of the district’s chief operating officer. According to the New Haven Register, the district lost over $6 million as a result of the breach. The hackers monitored the COO’s email conversations with vendors and then impersonated both the COO and the vendors. Their goal? To redirect payments meant for the district’s school bus contractor and a law firm to their fraudulent accounts. Luckily, the district has managed to recover $3.6 million so far.

Minneapolis Public Schools

In March, thousands of files purportedly stolen from the Minnesota school district were published on the internet days after a cyber gang announced the school system had missed its deadline to pay a $1 million ransom demand. According to The 74, the files included campus rape cases, child abuse inquiries, student mental health crisis details, and suspension reports. The school ransomware attack began in February and affected many of the district’s systems—from the ability to access the internet from school buildings to badge access to building alarms.

How Schools Can Prevent Data Breaches

Schools can take several precautions to help prevent data breaches and protect students’ sensitive information. Here are four basic security steps schools should take:

  1. Conducting regular risk assessments
  2. Providing ongoing security training
  3. Utilizing advanced security technologies
  4. Limiting data collection and sharing

Conducting Regular Risk Assessments

Schools should regularly evaluate their data security practices to identify vulnerabilities. They should assess aspects such as employee access to data, security of servers and networks, strength of passwords, and policies around data use. By understanding weak points in their systems, schools can make targeted improvements to strengthen security.

Providing Ongoing Security Training

All staff handling student data should receive frequent training on security best practices, such as using strong passwords, being wary of phishing emails, and reporting suspicious activity. Regular training and reinforcement of data use and storage policies can help reduce the risks of human error and unauthorized access.

Utilizing Advanced Security Technologies

Investing in sophisticated security systems can help schools detect and respond to threats early. Security measures like multi-factor authentication, data encryption, firewalls, and breach detection software add layers of protection for sensitive data. While these technologies often require funding and IT expertise, they’re important tools for combating cybersecurity threats.

Limiting Data Collection and Sharing

Schools should only collect and share the minimum amount of student data needed. The less data is stored and distributed, the fewer opportunities for a breach.

Limiting access and being selective about data requests is important on an individual level as well—as a parent, you should do what’s in your power to protect your child’s personal information from potential data breaches.

FreeKick—Reduce the Risk of Identity Fraud and Build Your Child’s Credit (Coming Soon)

When your child’s personal information is exposed to a data breach, it can damage their financial future. FreeKick helps you protect your child’s personal information as well as your own by offering a combination of services designed to monitor, protect, and restore your family members’ identities.

FreeKick provides a complete identity protection plan that covers up to two parents and six children between the ages of 0 and 25. And there’s more—with FreeKick, parents can also sponsor credit-building services for their children aged 14 to 25, helping them start their financial journey and potentially save up to $200,000 throughout their lifetime.

ID Monitoring Services

To help reduce the chances of child identity theft, FreeKick has implemented security measures specifically tailored for minor children, in addition to enhanced security features for adults:

Services for Adult Children and ParentsServices for Minor Children
Credit profile monitoring
SSN monitoring
Dark web monitoring for personal information
Up to $1 million identity theft insurance
Full-service white-glove concierge credit restoration
Lost wallet protection
Court records monitoring
Change of address monitoring
Non-credit (Payday) loan monitoring
Free FICO® Score monthly
FICO® Score factors
Experian credit report monthly
Credit profile monitoring
SSN monitoring
Dark web monitoring for children’s personal information
Up to $1 million identity theft insurance
Full-service white-glove concierge credit restoration
Sex offender monitoring—based on sponsor parent’s address

Every 30 seconds, a child becomes a victim of identity theft. Don’t let your child be a part of the statistics—make a FreeKick account.

Parent-Sponsored Credit Building

FreeKick offers an automated credit-building feature to help your children establish a strong financial foundation from a young age. The best part is that it won’t have any impact on your credit report or score.

To start building your child’s credit, all you have to do is select the “Activate Credit Building” option in your account dashboard when your child turns 14. Once they reach adulthood (age 18 in most states), they need to select “Activate Credit Reporting.”

Once credit reporting is activated, a credit account with a limit of $1,000 will be reported to the three major consumer credit bureaus (Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion). This report will include important information such as the date the account was opened, the credit amount, the type of credit, and the payment history from the past 24 months.

Here’s a breakdown of how the process works:

  1. Create a FreeKick Account—Visit FreeKick.bank and choose the plan that works best for you
  2. Set It and Forget It—Once you activate credit building, FreeKick will establish 12 months of credit history for your child through a no-interest installment loan
  3. Keep Growing—After the initial 12-month term, you have the option to renew your account to continue boosting your child’s credit profile

FreeKick Pricing

FreeKick has a variety of plans available to fit different budgets. All plans provide premium identity protection for up to two parents and six children, as well as credit building for children aged 14 to 25. All plans are FDIC-insured up to $250,000 to provide extra peace of mind.

The following table provides more detail regarding the pricing:

FDIC-Insured Deposit AmountPlan Fee
$3,000$0 (Free)
$2,000$49/year
$1,000$99/year
$10$149/year

Jumpstart your child’s financial future and protect your family’s identities—sign up for FreeKick today.