Privacy & Security

Why the Los Angeles Cyberattack Is a Wake-Up Call for Every School District

By Alyson Klein — September 06, 2022 5 min read
Hacker attack and data breach, information leak and cybersecurity concept.
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

The nation’s second-largest school district was hit over Labor Day weekend by a massive cyberattack that shut off access to email, crippled the district’s website, and hobbled systems teachers use to share lessons and take attendance.

Officials in the Los Angeles Unified school district did not detail the origins of the attack, except to say that they believe the attack was “criminal in nature.”

If that proves to be the case, Los Angeles Unified may be the most high-profile district yet to join the ballooning ranks of school systems targeted by cybercriminals, many of whom work in countries that are out of reach for U.S. law enforcement, such as Russia and China.

These groups often steal student or staff data, or lock down systems, demanding ransom payments in the millions of dollars in exchange for releasing the data back to the school systems. (LAUSD has not released information suggesting that’s what happened in this incident.)

If LAUSD can fall victim to one of these attacks, any district can, said Doug Levin, the national director of the K12 Security Information Exchange (K12 SIX) and one of the top experts in the country about cybersecurity for K-12 schools.

“Anyone can be a victim,” Levin said. “Even school districts as large as LAUSD are challenged to be able to defend themselves against these risks.”

K-12 systems—which now use technology across the board for teaching and learning and the management of schools—need support from states and the federal government to better protect themselves, particularly as cybercriminals become increasingly sophisticated, he added.

It’s ‘cyberattack season’ for schools

The beginning of the school year is a particularly vulnerable time for districts, Levin added, noting that some of the most prominent hacks on big school districts—such as Nevada’s Clark County and Virginia’s Fairfax County—hit right as the school year started.

That may be because the early weeks of school are “among the most challenging times of the year for school IT leaders,” he said. “One could imagine that that they were just overwhelmed, and so they could miss something that would otherwise throw up a red flag.”

LAUSD—which started its academic year in mid-August—did not cancel classes on Sept. 6, the first school day after the attack was discovered. It assured the community that key functions, including health care, payroll, and safety and emergency systems were unaffected by the hack, at least according to the district’s preliminary review.

Other systems, like the one used to take attendance, would need to be modified, at least temporarily.

It may be a good indicator of LAUSD’s level of preparedness that the district didn’t experience a complete shutdown, Levin said. “That suggests that they had been taking some steps to protect themselves and mitigate an attack like this,” he speculated.

“We are working collaboratively with our partners to address any and all impacted services,” the district wrote in a statement explaining the attack. “Los Angeles Unified is committed to delivering high-quality instructional programming, and we are benefiting from an immediate and comprehensive response from the federal government.”

After learning about the cyberattack, the White House brought together the U.S. Department of Education, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the Department of Homeland Security’s cybersecurity and infrastructure security agency “to provide rapid, incident response” for the district, alongside local law enforcement, the LAUSD statement said.

It’s curious that the White House would become involved so quickly in a single district cyberattack, Levin said, given that if the hub of the executive branch responded to every criminal hack, it likely wouldn’t do much else.

But that aggressive response could be due to more recent concerns that the federal government is not doing enough to protect schools. The Department of Education was called out last year by the Government Accountability Office for its lack of action on K-12 cybersecurity.

Cybersecurity is everyone’s problem

There are many other unanswered questions at this point, Levin said. How did the hackers get in? Did they access student or staff data? Are they demanding a ransom? What will the overall cost of restoring district systems be and how long will it take?

Cyberattacks of this magnitude can be costly, even if the district doesn’t end up paying an exorbitant ransom. For instance, the roughly 111,000-student Baltimore County school district in Maryland spent nearly $10 million recovering from a 2020 attack. That district has less than a quarter of the enrollment of LAUSD’s 520,000 K-12 students.

When it comes to the question of whether personal data was compromised, Levin suggested LAUSD might be well-advised to counsel parents, staff, and students that they should simply assume that their data was impacted, even if there’s no immediate evidence of that. That way, potential victims can begin monitoring their credit card accounts, start updating passwords, and take other steps to protect themselves.

Education technology leaders have long been wary of the debilitating impact of cyberattacks, with members of the Consortium for School Networking naming it as their number one concern five years in a row, according to an annual survey.

But district leaders often see it as the tech department’s purview, and not their own.

The incident in Los Angeles “should serve as a wake-up call to superintendents, school board members, and education policy leaders that schools now rely on technology to an extent that cybersecurity must be a priority not just for the IT department but for superintendents and school board members,” Levin said.

Some places to start, according to the experts?

  • Do a risk assessment to figure out where your vulnerabilities are;
  • Have a well-crafted cybersecurity plan that the district practices regularly, just as with fire or active shooter drills;
  • Train employees on common tactics hackers use;
  • Back-up data;
  • and put in place multi-factor authentication systems, which call for employees and students to confirm their identities using a cellphone, separate email, or other source.
Related Tags:

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Early Childhood Webinar
How the Science of Reading Elevates Our Early Learners to Success
From the creators of ABCmouse, learn how a solution grounded in the science of reading can prepare our youngest learners for kindergarten.
Content provided by Age of Learning
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
English-Language Learners Webinar
Classroom Strategies for Building EL Students’ Confidence and Success
Fueling success for EL students who are learning new concepts while navigating an unfamiliar language. Join the national discussion of strategies and Q&A.
Content provided by Project Lead The Way
Future of Work Live Online Discussion Seat at the Table: Understanding the Critical Link Between Student Mental Health and the Future of Work
In recent months, there’s been a rallying cry against the teaching of social-emotional skills. Discover why students need these skills now more than ever.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Privacy & Security Cybersecurity a Top Ed-Tech Priority for States, But Funding Lags
Only 8 percent in a survey of state ed-tech leaders said their state provides “ample” funding for cybersecurity.
3 min read
 abstract digital key with technology interface, cybersecurity, key, lock, cellphone, fingerprint, and cloud computing icons
As schools increasingly turn to technology, the risk of cyberattacks have also grown.
iStock/Getty Images Plus
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Privacy & Security Quiz
Quiz Yourself: How Much Do You Know About Cybersecurity?
Answer 5 questions to assess your knowledge on cybersecurity.
Content provided by Bluum
Privacy & Security 'There Are So Many Issues’: Why Schools Are Struggling to Protect Student Data
While efforts have been made to protect student data, there are still troubling examples of data breaches.
8 min read
Illustration of numerous computer windows overlapping with creepy eyeballs inside the close, open, and minimize circles within the various window screens.
Daniel Hertzberg for Education Week
Privacy & Security Download Be Ready When Parents Ask These 7 Questions About Data Privacy
These questions offer a roadmap for issues that K-12 leaders should be prepared to discuss.
1 min read
Data security and privacy concept. Visualization of personal or business information safety.
iStock/Getty Images Plus