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Why School Districts Should Consider a Team of First Responders for Cyber Threats

Feb 27, 2024

6 MINUTE READ

Most school districts are equipped to deal with an emergency—whether it’s a disgruntled parent lobbying for change, an environmental disaster, or a public scandal. However, fewer school districts have thought about emergency digital threats. 

After all, most school districts don’t have huge IT budgets or large cybersecurity teams. 

The good news is that you don’t need a team of cybersecurity experts to manage a cyber incident. You do, however, need a plan and a team of first responders who know how to rope in the right experts to address the crisis at hand. Enter the Crisis Response Team. 

What is a team of first responders in cybersecurity?

Cybersecurity First Responders (also known as a Crisis Response Team (CRT)) is a designated group of professionals responsible for responding to and managing cybersecurity incidents within an organization. This team can sometimes be created through the help of a school district’s cybersecurity annex or cyber incident response plan

The primary role of the CRT is to swiftly and effectively address security breaches, cyberattacks, data breaches, or any other incidents that may threaten the organization’s digital assets, operations, or reputation.

In cybersecurity, time is of the essence. A swift response can help minimize the extent of damage caused by the incident. By containing the incident promptly, teams can prevent further compromise of systems or data and reduce the impact the incident could have on the district’s operations, finances, and reputation.

Some states, like Arkansas, have already assembled cyber response teams for exactly these scenarios. 

Benefits of having a team of first responders 

Creating a team of first responders or crisis managers may feel like overkill, but it will be invaluable in the event of a crisis. Some of the benefits include: 

Faster response times for threats

Having a dedicated team of first responders allows school districts to respond promptly to cyber threats as they arise. With trained personnel in place, the district can swiftly address security incidents, minimizing potential damage and disruption to school operations.

Mitigating risks

A team of first responders can actively monitor for potential cyber threats and vulnerabilities, helping to identify and mitigate risks before they escalate into more significant issues. By proactively managing security threats, school districts can better protect sensitive data and ensure the continuity of educational services. Through regular training, simulation exercises, and knowledge sharing, team members can sharpen their skills and stay updated on emerging cybersecurity threats and best practices.

Resource optimization

By centralizing expertise and resources within a dedicated cyber response team, school districts can optimize their response efforts and allocate resources more efficiently. This can lead to cost savings and improved effectiveness in managing cybersecurity incidents.

Compliance requirements

Many school districts are subject to regulatory requirements and standards related to data protection and cybersecurity. Establishing a team of first responders can help ensure compliance with relevant laws and regulations by implementing robust security measures and incident response protocols.

Protecting student data

School districts hold vast amounts of sensitive information about students, including personal and academic records. A dedicated cyber response team can help safeguard this data from unauthorized access, breaches, or cyberattacks, protecting the privacy and confidentiality of students’ information.

A crisis team in practice

Creating an incident response team for your school district will help you manage crises and ensure the safety and well-being of students, staff, and the community. It’s important to appoint teams for different levels:

At the school level

The school-based crisis intervention team plays a central role in providing direct services during most crisis events. This team should ideally consist of staff members trained to address immediate needs and support students and staff affected by the crisis. Community volunteers, such as knowledgeable parents, could also be valuable. 

Depending on the size and needs of the district, the roles and functions of the school-based team may vary, with larger districts relying more heavily on district-level resources.

At a district level

A district-level crisis intervention team should include representatives from the district office, school-based teams, and external collaborators such as mental health professionals and law enforcement. This team establishes district-wide policies, coordinates resources, and provides support to school-based teams during crises. They will oversee training, establish connections with external agencies, and ensure the implementation of the crisis response plan across schools within the district.

At a regional level

The regional resource group—composed of representatives from participating school districts and community professionals—serves as a forum for sharing experiences and collaborating on crisis response efforts. This group advocates for expanded services, facilitates resource sharing among districts, and supports training initiatives.

Different roles within the team

Each school district should adapt the general model to its unique needs and strengths while remaining flexible to address diverse crisis situations effectively. Here are different roles you may want to appoint to your team: 

Cyber Incident Response Team Lead 

This role coordinates scheduled and emergency team meetings, oversees all cyber incident response functions, ensures necessary resources are available, and communicates with relevant stakeholders, including district-level authorities and external cybersecurity experts. Typically, the team lead will be a designated IT security manager or cybersecurity specialist (internal or external). 

Assistant Team Lead 

The person in this role assists the team lead in all functions and assumes leadership responsibilities in their absence, ensuring continuity and effectiveness in responding to cyber incidents.

Cybersecurity Coordinator 

The cybersecurity coordinator develops and maintains training programs for team members and school staff on cybersecurity best practices, identifies and establishes connections with external cybersecurity resources and experts, and oversees the provision of cybersecurity services during a cyber incident. This requires expertise in cybersecurity protocols and procedures, so it may be best to outsource this role. 

Notification Coordinator 

This coordinator establishes and coordinates communication protocols for notifying team members and relevant staff in the event of a cyber incident, including itinerant or part-time staff. They will help develop plans for the rapid dissemination of critical information during and outside of regular school hours.

Communication Specialist 

The communication specialist can be an internal or external role. They manage all internal communications related to the cyber incident, screen incoming communications, and maintain a log of all communications. This person will work closely with the notification coordinator to develop communication protocols and ensure the timely dissemination of information to all stakeholders.

Media Liaison

The media liaison has to contact media outlets if and when it’s appropriate. They will help prepare official statements for distribution to staff, students, parents, and the community and maintain ongoing communication with law enforcement, cybersecurity teams, and district authorities to keep information current. They also handle media inquiries.

Each role within the Cyber Incident Response Team is essential for effectively managing cyber incidents, ensuring a coordinated response, and mitigating the impact on operations and data security. Collaboration and communication among team members are critical to effectively address cyber threats and protect the school district’s digital infrastructure.

What will a crisis response team do?

The crisis team will ensure that there is efficient and effective communication between various districts, their stakeholders, their IT teams, and law enforcement in the event of a cyber breach. They will ensure that the district has both internal and external capability to deal with a cyber-attack or another digital crisis event. 

The team will collaborate to create an incident response playbook that outlines the step-by-step procedures for detecting, analyzing, containing, and recovering from cybersecurity incidents. They should also participate in tabletop exercises regularly to ensure readiness and improve response capabilities. 

When an incident does occur, the team can pull in external or internal experts who can isolate the incident, assess the criticality of the situation, recover data or systems wherever possible, and prevent the incident from spreading further. 

Maintaining routine school activities as much as possible during and after a crisis helps provide stability and support to students and teachers. While adjustments may be necessary, such as postponing exams or conducting supportive classroom discussions, minimizing disruptions to the school day helps students feel safe and supported.

The team can also play a role in preventing cyberattacks from happening first, proactively monitoring and detecting potential security incidents, analyzing the scope and impact of incidents, and determining the appropriate response actions before a crisis occurs. 

Looking ahead

Having a Crisis First Response Team in place is essential for any school district that wants to effectively detect, respond to, and recover from cybersecurity incidents, minimizing the impact on their operations and safeguarding the sensitive information they store on their networks and devices. 

If you aren’t sure whether or not your district has the internal expertise or resources to create your own team of first responders, get in touch with a cybersecurity company that can assist when you need it most. 

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