By Ray Girdler, Director of Data Use and Privacy, Arkansas Department of Education
You’ve seen the headline: “School faces loss of student data from ransomware attack.” Knowing that ransomware, zero-day exploits, and other cybersecurity threats can hit schools anywhere at any time has spurred school districts around the nation to develop strategies to shore up their defenses. The Arkansas Department of Education (ADE) launched the first-ever Cyber Threat Response Team (CTRT) for Arkansas public schools in the fall of 2019, and since then it has improved its ability to respond to threats.
The CTRT is led by the ADE’s Division of Research & Technology and Arkansas’ Department of Information Systems (DIS) K-12 Support Team. The ADE brought in a new assistant commissioner for its Research & Technology Division, Don Benton. With experience in education technology leadership, Don began by cultivating and strengthening relationships between the department and technology professionals in the field. The CTRT works closely with DIS and law enforcement, when appropriate, to assess, mitigate, recover, and restore a school district’s network as quickly as possible.
Not long after Don started, a cyber-attack took down the network at an Arkansas school district, and the risk to student data created a sense of urgency. As one state technology leader confessed, “One moment you feel safe and the next moment you're not. It is such a disruption for what you worked so hard to avoid.”
Expanding the Team
The attack spurred the growth of the CTRT by highlighting the need for more hands-on-deck help when a cyber crisis hits, and I was charged with expanding the team. We began by convening the technology coordinators from Arkansas’ education service cooperatives.
Members of the CTRT are volunteers from Arkansas’ regional education service cooperatives and school districts. With diverse skill sets and backgrounds, they are all driven by the belief that no school district should feel alone when facing a cyber-attack. As one technology specialist put it, “I have been in a cyber-attack as a new tech and have never felt that overwhelmed and alone before. Knowing I have people that are ready and waiting to help me is a huge relief that everything will be okay.”
Initially, most team members had information technology and computer networking backgrounds and knowledge. They were ready to provide both remote and onsite support immediately, while also looking for ways to develop knowledge and skills for future challenges. To build up their cybersecurity capabilities, they conducted a talent assessment across the Arkansas education community. They recruited new members with cybersecurity experience from their time in the military or law enforcement. Even with these new skills and knowledge, the CTRT leaders sought to add a training program to help improve technical skills and capabilities.
Training Aligned with the NICE Framework
To ensure the best possible training, the CTRT partnered with the Forge Institute to provide cybersecurity training to members, IT staff, and district-level administrators across Arkansas school districts. Forge Institute provided a series of network defender seminars with content from its Cyber Training Bootcamp curriculum. The program aligns with the NICE Workforce Framework for Cybersecurity, specifically training on the TKSs (tasks, knowledge, and skills) of the Cyber Defense Analyst work role.
"Our training is aligned to the NICE Framework because it creates flexibility and a common lexicon between training providers, organizations, and individuals," said Scott Anderson, Forge Institute Executive Director, "Technology is constantly changing and the cybersecurity ecosystem needs the ability to adapt. Part of enabling this comes from adopting the NICE Framework." Forge Institute also provided superintendents and district-level administrators an opportunity to take part in the “Cyber for Executive Leaders” course.
Other beneficiaries of the partnership with the Forge Institute include local organizations such as the Hot Springs Technology Institute (HSTI), Arkansas Association of Educational Administrators (AAEA), Arkansas Conference of Technology (ACOT), and Arkansas Society for Technology Education (ARKSTE), which participate in new and exciting cybersecurity activities, seminars, and tabletop exercises. Providing IT staff with opportunities to collaborate and learn creates an avenue for identifying future leaders and talent for the CTRT. Working with the Forge Institute has connected school districts to a much bigger plan in Arkansas to equip the local workforce with the critical skills and tools needed to prevent and address cyber-attacks. And volunteers in the CTRT benefit from professional skills development that can lead to furthering their careers.
And the result? Increased knowledge across the Arkansas K12 system of cybersecurity threats and methods for detecting and responding to them; professional skills development for participants in the CTRT program; and growing awareness and recognition of cybersecurity careers available in Arkansas. Most importantly, the CTRT has been able to respond to threats by sending cybersecurity first responders, in-person, at the first signs of trouble.