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Superintendent's News

Posted: August 18, 2023

Cybersecurity Takes Center Stage at White House Summit

In his weekly message, Superintendent Scott Elder discusses his trip to Washington, D.C., and the need to do everything possible to safeguard school IT systems.

Superintendent Scott Elder on the computer.

Superintendent Scott Elder on the computer.

I had the honor of visiting the White House last week for a summit on cybersecurity – an issue every school system in the country is grappling with. Getting to see the inside of the White House was amazing. Still, it saddens me that crippling cyberattacks have become so common that a summit like this is even necessary.

But that’s the world we live in, a reality we know all too well. In January 2022, we were hit with a ransomware attack that forced us to close schools for two days. Our employees worked around the clock alongside outside experts to restore systems used for such tasks as taking attendance, contacting families in emergencies, and assuring that students are picked up from school by authorized adults.

We were able to get a handle on the situation quickly, thanks to our amazing staff and the others who stepped up to help us. Other districts haven’t been so lucky. Since 2016, there have been over 1,600 successful cyberattacks against school districts. In some instances, hackers have been able to access student grades, medical records, documented home issues, behavioral information, and financial information of students and employees.

The hackers who targeted us didn’t get their hands on that type of information. Nevertheless, we’re mindful that another attack could come at any moment. Dr. Richard Bowman, our Chief Information & Strategy Officer, and his team have been working to safeguard our systems. But they can’t do it alone. It takes all of us.

So please, do your part by taking our mandatory cybersecurity trainings seriously, following protocols on passwords, and enabling such safeguards as two-factor authentication. And, please, cooperate with Dr. Bowman’s team as it conducts risk assessments. The stakes are really high here.

As for the White House summit, I’m grateful that this issue is getting the attention it deserves, and that the White House, the Department of Education, the Department of Homeland Security, and other federal agencies are exploring ways to make schools more secure from cyberattacks. 

I shared our story, what we learned from the cyberattack on APS, and the importance of good partners. Our local FBI office went above and beyond to help us as we were dealing with the attack, and the agency continues to be a fantastic partner in this area.

Among the announcements made at the summit is a proposed Federal Communications Commission pilot program that would make $200 million available over three years to help schools and libraries shore up their systems. To be clear, $200 million isn’t enough considering the magnitude of the issue, the number of school districts that are vulnerable, and what’s at stake. But it’s a start, and I’m glad the issue is finally front and center.

The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency also released a set of resources for school districts to use to improve our defenses. The agency has established a “tip line” for school districts. If, in the course of their normal work, they become aware of a potential attack on a district, they notify and work with the district to prevent it.

The federal government is also pushing private industry to create devices that are secure by design, meaning they are secure coming out of the box. Among the major companies at the summit was Google, which noted that there hasn’t been a cyber breach through a Chromebook.

National leaders aren’t the only ones focused on this topic.

New Mexico Attorney General Raúl Torrez informed me that he is starting a state conference on cybersecurity. He has asked APS to be the host site, and we will do so in November.

There’s lots of work happening on this front.

Until next week. Have a great weekend!