Report: Physical Security Increases While Cyber Safety Drops At Schools

CDW Government Inc. recently announced the results of the 2008 School Safety Index, the national benchmark on the current status of public school district safety. Based on eight indicators and four contraindicators, or challenges, the School Safety Index provides a first-hand view of school safety issues from the perspective of more than 400 district IT and security directors.

The 2008 School Safety Index finds that districts improved their physical safety score by 39 percent over 2007, while their cyber safety score declined by 25 percent in the same time period.

“School districts both large and small are embracing advanced technology tools and techniques to make school a safer place for our children,” said Bob Kirby, senior director K-12, CDW-G. “Cyber- and physical-security tools -- from network access control to security cameras -- are allowing administrators to see into and lock down their networks and school buildings, but schools continue to be frustrated by budget and staff constraints, particularly in their IT security programs.”

Key findings include:

  • More than half of districts are using network access control (NAC) to protect data and ensure that only authorized users and approved applications access their networks. However, budget constraints, lack of staff resources and the need for more IT tools cancelled out districts’ efforts to improve cyber safety .
  • Nearly half of districts are utilizing mass notification systems, and 70 percent are using security cameras; 29 percent of districts report that security cameras have had a positive impact on district safety.
  • Districts should consider the instant access that IP security cameras can give their local police. While more schools are using security cameras, only a small number of districts give their local police force the ability to access digital footage in real-time during an emergency.

Measured on a scale from zero to 100, the national cyber safety average this year was 38.6, down 25 percent since 2007. This year’s Index finds that NAC is emerging as an essential IT tool for K-12 school districts, with 57 percent using NAC to view and control who and what is on the network. Rural districts lead NAC adoption at 60 percent, followed by suburban districts at 54 percent and urban districts at 45 percent.

While 89 percent of districts authenticate users to their networks, there is still room for improvement, as 16 percent (mainly urban and rural districts) still use general log-ons, rather than unique names or passwords -- exposing themselves to a potential security breach.

Despite increased use of cyber security tools and dedicated attention to IT security, reported cyber security breaches are up in every segment but urban. Overall, 14 percent of districts report at least one IT security breach in the last 12 months, up from 9 percent in 2007. Districts with enrollments of 1,000 to 4,999 had the largest increase in breaches, from 8 percent in 2007 to 18 percent in 2008.

Districts report employing multiple tools to secure and monitor their buildings, with security cameras topping the list at 70 percent, a 7 percent increase from 2007. Other tools increasing in use this year are sex offender databases and security teams.

New this year to the School Safety Index is measurement of systems to inform large groups of people quickly in an emergency. A modern mass notification or emergency alert system enables districts to notify the community about emergencies like the approach of severe weather, on-campus incidents or other disruptions. Of the 45 percent of districts using a mass notification system, 70 percent alert the community through automated phone messages and 61 percent use e-mail alerts, but only 32 percent take advantage of new technologies such as text messages. Most systems target faculty and staff, but often do not reach all community members, such as police and other emergency responders.

As with cyber safety, the Index recorded a rise in reported physical security breaches, with 31 percent of districts experiencing a breach in the last 12 months, up from 21 percent in 2007. While urban districts continue to experience the most physical security breaches overall, rural districts had the biggest increase year over year, with 26 percent reporting at least one breach, up 12 percent since 2007.

Information technology -- the backbone of security solutions -- is blurring the lines between cyber safety and physical safety tools, yet the School Safety Index indicates that districts are not taking full advantage of this IT convergence. Districts adopting tools that streamline processes and use limited staff resources more effectively-- from security cameras to network access control-- not only will improve visibility into physical and network facilities but also free IT and facilities staff for other critical activities. Mass notification systems ensure that critical information is both delivered and received by community members during an emergency via multiple communication channels, but many districts are not using all available channels or including all community members.

“The barriers noted by the 403 respondents to the School Safety Index -- limited budgets, limited staff and limited tools -- are all linked,” Kirby said. “Now in its second year, the Index provides schools with the ability to see trends, understand the newest safety and security tools and measure themselves against a national average in order to affect real change for their communities. With advance planning and creativity, districts can overcome the barriers to better security, enabling security staffs to work smarter, rather than harder.”

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