A Guide to Cybersecurity + Developing a Risk Mitigation Plan for Independent Schools

August 4, 2023

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As cybersecurity attacks continue to become more advanced and frequent, organizations must take steps to secure their data. Independent schools are no exception to this – in fact, given the sensitive nature of the data that many schools possess, mitigating cybersecurity risks is even more essential for these organizations. 

From the personal data of students, including names, dates of birth, and addresses, to sensitive data on students’ medical conditions, independent schools sit on top of a mountain of confidential data. Were this data to be breached, the consequences could be disastrous. In the worst instances, breaches can even lead to cases of child identity theft that may not be discovered for years. 

The time to act isn’t once your school has suffered a breach – it’s now. 

A proactive approach to identifying your school’s blindspots coupled with the development of a risk mitigation plan helps defend your school against cyber criminals. 

For many schools, this is an unfamiliar area. Fortunately, that no longer needs to be the case. Read on as we explore the key components of cybersecurity strategy for independent schools and outline the process required to build a more mature cybersecurity infrastructure.

The Value of a Proactive Approach to Cybersecurity and Risk Mitigation

Many independent schools find themselves lacking both the awareness and the resources to prioritize investment in their security infrastructure. It can be easy for leaders to think that cybersecurity is an issue that affects businesses – not nonprofit educational institutions. As a result, many organizations ignore cybersecurity until a breach occurs. 

By this point, it’s often too late: the damage to your school has already been done. Remediating security issues after a breach is often a time-consuming, expensive process. Additionally, your school faces wide-ranging consequences: reputational, financial, operational, and even legal jeopardy are all within the realm of possibility.

Adopting a proactive approach to defending your independent school is a far more cost-effective approach, enabling your school to upgrade its security infrastructure and defend itself against would-be attackers. 

An ounce of prevention is worth more than a pound of cure. Leaders tasked with security must ensure their team has sufficient resources to invest in building robust security frameworks that protect your school – and its students – from potential security incidents. 

If your school currently works with a Managed Service Provider (MSP) to manage computer provisions, an IT help desk, and other basic IT services, it’s important to understand the scope of this relationship. Many MSPs are not responsible for cybersecurity, instead focusing solely on operations. Review your organization’s Service Level Agreement (SLA) to confirm whether security risks are effectively being transferred to your MSP. 

Conducting a Cyber Risk Assessment: The First Step Toward a More Secure Future

In the realm of cybersecurity, many organizations simply don’t know what they don’t know. Without turning these “unknown unknowns” into “known knowns”, it’s impossible for organizations to manage their risk profile. By identifying their vulnerabilities and blind spots, leaders can understand where to prioritize their investments. 

Businesses typically start this process in one of two ways: by conducting a business impact analysis or by conducting an initial cyber risk assessment. 

A business impact analysis assesses your organization’s systems and processes and quantifies how a security event would impact your organization’s business. A cyber risk assessment identifies the security controls your school already has in place and measures them against possible risks. Once the cyber risk assessment is completed, your school will be provided with a series of recommendations. 

At Smith + Howard, we provide our clients with a comprehensive roadmap that details a series of recommendations that will improve the security profile of your organization. These are based on a variety of industry frameworks, including CIS Controls, NIST Cybersecurity Framework, and others. Our team serves as trusted advisors on an ongoing basis, guiding your school through the remediation process and helping you develop a comprehensive risk mitigation plan. 

Key Elements of a Risk Mitigation Plan

Cybersecurity is not a one-off exercise; it’s an ongoing strategy that must be constantly revised as your organization grows and evolves. A key component of this strategy is a risk mitigation plan; a series of steps that your organization should follow to upgrade its security profile. 

The core components of a risk mitigation plan include:

  • Risk Identification: qualifies potential risks that exist today and identifies others that may emerge in the future. 
  • Risk Assessment: specifies the priority with which each risk should be considered, based on the potential impact on your organization combined with the likelihood of the risk occurring. A review of existing internal controls is also included in this phase. 
  • Controls Implementation: the plan will provide a roadmap that includes a series of well-established cybersecurity controls, such as the CIS Controls, that your organization should implement to upgrade security. 
  • Staff Training: your school’s staff are your first and last line of defense against potential attacks. Ensuring they are aware of their responsibilities is key to promoting high levels of security. 
  • Incident Response Plan Development: in the event of a data breach, your team must have a plan to quickly and effectively remediate the situation and restore key systems. 
  • Regular Update of Plan and Policies: cybersecurity is an ever-evolving domain. Schools must routinely adjust strategies and cybersecurity policies to account for emerging risks. 
  • Insurance Coverage: cyber insurance can protect your school against the financial losses it may suffer in the event of a security incident. 
  • Compliance Requirements: ensuring your school satisfies regulatory requirements is a key concern, particularly for schools that handle medical data, payment information, and other sensitive data. 

The priority level of each of these elements will be driven by the current status of your organization’s IT infrastructure. By working closely with a trusted advisor, you can ensure your organization has the guidance to implement the required changes to build a more secure environment for your community. 

Smith + Howard: A Trusted Cybersecurity Partner

Cybersecurity is a major societal challenge and it’s not one that will dissipate anytime soon. As educators, it’s incumbent on independent schools not only to protect their students but to model a strong example of security-aware behaviors and processes for the next generation.

At Smith + Howard, we’re proud to serve as trusted advisors to many nonprofit organizations and independent schools. Our team conducts cyber risk assessments and helps organizations build a roadmap toward a more secure future, guiding IT teams and leaders through the process of strengthening their cybersecurity infrastructure. Our ANAB-accredited team also provides ISO 27001 Certification Services for independent schools with international footprints. 
If you’re interested in analyzing the security of your school’s IT infrastructure, contact a Smith + Howard advisor today.

How can we help?

If you have any questions and would like to connect with a team member please call 404-874-6244 or contact an advisor below.