In response to recent security breaches, the Antelope Valley Union High School District in Lancaster, Calif. (9-12, enr. 18,000), may be one of the first districts in the country to hire a network security manager whose sole duty is ensuring that safety, responsibility, and privacy reign supreme in the district’s computer network.

“There were three reasons we decided to hire a network manager with an emphasis on security. First and foremost, we wanted to protect students while they are online. Second, we wanted to protect the integrity of our network. And, finally, we wanted to optimize our bandwidth,” said Michael Porter, director of information services at Antelope Valley.

“We are such a large district that we’re really dependent on the internet. We communicate through eMail and teach classes over the internet, and many of our teachers have their own sites, so we are very technology-rich,” said Linda Solcich, community relations coordinator. “But, because of that, we have to be very careful.”

At press time, the district was still searching for the right candidate, with the goal of filling the position by mid-January.

The decision to spend $70,000 to hire a network security manager comes in the wake of security breaches on several school web sites and a highly publicized case of inappropriate internet use by a teacher.

“We had a case several years ago where a teacher was looking at pornography on the internet, so we’ve had to fire employees in the past due to misuses of the internet,” said Solcich.

The case she referred to took place during the 1997-98 school year, when a district art teacher was fired in May 1998 after a district investigation revealed he was keeping pornographic materials from the internet on his school computer.

Despite his firing, trustees voted to give the teacher $40,000 to avoid litigation. District officials said the 4-1 vote was cast to end the case because they didn’t want to go to court, face rising attorney fees, and risk losing the case.

The art teacher faced 17 misdemeanor and felony charges related to the use of a school computer to store sexually explicit, erotic, and pornographic material and for allegedly molesting a 15-year-old female student.

He was sentenced in May 1999 to a year in jail and probation of five years after pleading no contest to unlawful computer access and possession of child pornography.

“We’ve had some problems with inappropriate use in the past, and we’ve seen some teachers and students using the ‘net for non-educational reasons. There are a huge number of opportunities for use and misuse of the internet,” said Porter.

According to Solcich, the district also has had several instances of people acquiring domain names similar to those of Antelope Valley schools and posting inappropriate material on those sites.

“Each of our schools has its own web site, and we’ve been hacked into by a variety of individuals over the past two-and-a-half years,” explained Porter. Antelope Valley also has had some spoofing of its web sites.

“That’s when hackers create a site that has a similar domain name to our school web site. Often, it’s a ‘dot-com’ rather than a ‘dot-org.’ Some parents have been very confused when they’ve gone to what they thought was the school web site and seen inappropriate material,” said Porter.

The $70,000 price tag for the new district position includes benefits, Porter explained. “The actual pay is somewhat less than that. Actually, I think that figure is low compared to the private sector. [Private-sector network security managers] can make $90,000 to $100,000 doing the same thing,” he said.

District officials believe the $70,000 is a necessary and cost-efficient expenditure.

“Our network technicians were taken off of their normal duties to track down hackers, and we had to hire an investigator at one point to go in and look at files on some computers, and all that was happening more and more frequently,” said Porter.

“When we added it all up, we decided we were already spending more than it would cost to hire someone to specifically take care of that for us,” he said.

Another measure Antelope Valley has taken to ensure security is to install filtering software from WebSense.

“The software is not a filtering system that filters by keyword, but a service that totally blocks inappropriate sites,” said Porter. “After all, we’re a high school district, and older children may need access to sites about human reproduction or science that would be blocked out by a filter.”

Monitoring the filter will be just one of many duties expected of the district security manager. Another is making sure the district’s servers are “bulletproof.”

With roughly 5,000 computers throughout the district-and with every classroom in all seven high schools connected to the internet-Porter believes Antelope Valley was in need of a staff member to concentrate solely on security issues.

“An internet connection opens up your network to hackers, and it allows for improper use from within, so there has to be some mechanism in place to avoid problems,” he said. “As an institution becomes larger, you really might have to have someone to manage all of those things.”

But some school officials believe that hiring an employee dedicated solely to network security might not be right for every district.

“From my standpoint, this would only be useful in a very large, urban school district that has begun to put truly mission-critical applications on the internet,” said Jim Hirsch, assistant superintendent for technology at Texas’s Plano Independent School District.

According to Hirsch, Plano currently addresses security issues by using network technicians to do any “snooping” that may need to be done on the network-and if they find something, they turn it over to district security.

“I think that if a district was to employ someone specifically for school security, then that person would have to have a very close relationship with the network engineer, because that’s the person that really knows the nuts and bolts of the network,” said Hirsch.

“As school networks get bigger, safety and security will become essential components to school administration,” said Keith Kruger, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Consortium for School Networking.

“When we reach a certain level of network sophistication, I think you’ll see more and more schools realizing the need for a manager of information, not just a manager of technology,” he added.

“I believe that, if [districts] are going to have an emphasis on the internet, software, and web-based content, there will be an increased need for this type of a position,” said Porter.

Links:

Antelope Valley Union High School District
http://avdistrict.org

Consortium for School Networking
http://www.cosn.org

Plano Independent School District
http://www.pisd.edu