Education & Government
Jennifer Rose Hale Image
Jennifer Rose Hale
Former Client Partner, Texas Association of School Boards

6 data access management tips for school boards to reduce risk

September 25, 2023
0 min read
6 data access management tips for school boards to reduce risk

Careful data access management is a growing urgency for school boards, and the consequences of carelessness are only becoming more serious.

How serious? Think about the type of data schools have access to. Like healthcare organizations, schools are entrusted with an enormous amount of sensitive personal data that can include student health histories, assessments, financial status and beyond.

And like large employers, districts need volumes of employee data to remain efficient and effective: pay history, taxpayer identifiers, performance evaluations and more.

Then, think about what can go wrong. On the simpler end, an administrator emailing the board can mistype or select a wrong email address and accidentally send sensitive materials to an unknown party. On the more nefarious, a bad actor accesses a database of student and staff Social Security numbers, test results and medical history, and your district now faces a ransomware demand.

Whether error or intent, each scenario potentially hurts one or more individuals and creates a breach of public trust that a district would struggle to recover from.

Schools need significant amounts of data, especially data about students and employees, to be effective. And controlling access to that data — keeping it safe — is a particular challenge when dealing with so many scenarios, personalities, intentions and more.

Preemptive attention to managing data access helps avoid these nightmare scenarios and allows board members to focus on district achievement. So how can a board ensure it is providing reasonable data access while protecting students and staff?

Challenges with data access security

Public school boards must prioritize effective data governance to protect their students, staff and the educational process as a whole, but bad risk practices and uninformed decision-making increase the risk of sensitive data exposure.

Consider a few factors that complicate data access management and expose districts to risk:

  • Increasing cybercrime. With criminals increasingly targeting local governments and nonprofits, school boards understandably may want to lock down access as much as possible. However, while strong cybersecurity practices are necessary, data needs to be usable to be useful.
  • Insider threats. While large-scale leaks usually lead back to external parties, frustrated employees or students or just simple accidents can expose school districts to harm.
  • Confidentiality regulations and risk of consequences and penalties. The landscape related to data privacy is changing. The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act has long established requirements for schools, but states are taking their own action to limit collection, use and protection of data.
  • Resources required to maintain data integrity. IT staff and resources can be a strain on school budgets and easy to discount if devices, networks and more basically are working — or if staff and students have found workarounds.
  • Easy availability of insecure platforms. Speaking of workarounds, many staff members and students choose to use unsanctioned cloud-based platforms and personal devices to access sensitive data.

6 tips for better data access security

While these factors make protecting data more challenging, districts can employ solutions and strategies to secure sensitive data and ensure stakeholder trust and accountability.

1. Understand your current practices

Begin with an audit of your current data-management plan, policies and resources. Whether you are just beginning to collect information or already have regular assessments, expert help is available. The U.S. Department of Education offers a data security checklist through its Privacy Technical Assistance Center.

2. Keep policies relevant with regular review

Policies around data access have a double whammy of involving potentially private information and rapidly changing technology standards. Therefore, regular, thorough reviews are both appropriate and necessary to ensure policies are keeping up both with realistic use and advances in technology.

These policies should not only define who has access but also include data-destruction requirements. While the policy-adoption process can be time-consuming, technology can help make the policy process more efficient.

3. Focus on proactive rather than reactive strategies

Making secure tools available to staff — providing a secure file-sharing platform, for example — educates the educational team and encourages responsible use.

4. Employ user permissions

Data access should never be an all-or-nothing experience. A school secretary or administrator, for example, needs different access than a district curriculum director, bus driver or, yes, board president.

These differing levels of access can sometimes be dependent on the time of year and scope of duties, and, like relevant policies, should be reviewed regularly.

5. Make district staff part of the solution

In a Harvard Business Review piece titled, “Your Biggest Cybersecurity Risks Could Be Inside Your Organization,” Microsoft chief security officer Bret Arsenault notes that employees are “the first and last line of defense,” when it comes to cybersecurity.

By regularly training staff and helping connect the dots between their personal digital security and workplace data security, employees can help ensure that school resources remain safe.

6. Use trusted partners

Most school districts can’t employ every expert they need for IT resource management and instead rely on partners. Trusted partners are ones who understand the specific needs of public schools and their leaders as well as the unique risks local governments face.

Look for partners who tailor their services to modern education needs, update their software and hardware regularly and offer help desk support during critical hours.

Modern board management software, for example, provides the tools school boards need to mitigate the risks for sensitive data exposure or loss.

Security makes data governance more successful

When it comes to data, the sky isn’t the limit. Limiting data access to only the most necessary users at the right time is important at every level.

We at Diligent understand the needs school board members face during times of rapid technological change. That is why Diligent Community is a cloud-based school board management software that offers secure servers, the strongest level of encryption currently available and regular updates to ensure it remains the right choice for the modern district.


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