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Cyberattack

The East Baton Rouge Parish school system is preparing to spend $215,000 to improve backup systems to protect its data from the kind of ransomware attacks that hit other schools systems last summer and shut down key parts of state government last month.

Also, the board is considering a measure to discourage balloon releases on school properties because of the potential adverse effect on wildlife.

In a unanimous vote Thursday, the School Board gave preliminary approval to the purchase of computer storage equipment and cybersecurity services. The board is expected to give final approval at its Dec. 12 meeting.

Chief Technology Officer Richard Ellis told the board that school system data is under constant threat.

“In the past couple of days, we’ve had 20,000 attempts to put some viral malware onto our system that we’ve been able to stop,” Ellis said.

“We have to update (our protection),” he added. “It’s kinda mandatory. If we don’t, we’ll face the ramifications.

While East Baton Rouge Parish schools have not as yet reported falling victim to a cyberattack, several government offices in Louisiana, including a handful of Louisiana school districts, have. The latest was a ransomware attack discovered on the morning of Nov. 18 that prompted the state to shut down its servers at an array of state agencies.

The proposal is to buy the storage equipment from CMA Technology Solutions of Baton Rouge, a technology reseller, along with three years worth of associated cybersecurity services.

“There is a new bad guy in town, he wakes up every morning and he wants our stuff,” said Michael Victoria, a senior client executive with CMA. “He wants your data, he wants your financial information.”

In a Nov. 22 memo, Ellis said the purchase would allow the school system “to update the district’s current backup systems for all mission critical data systems such as finance, human resources, directory services, and also other data.” The new equipment would also offer the “latest in reporting tools” to detect cyberattacks, Ellis wrote.

The school system is taking advantage of a state contract for “integrated data protection appliance” manufactured by Dell EMC, a contract for which CMA is a vendor. The appliance stores data locally as well as off-site, separating the two via what’s known as “air gap” security. The company also promises quick data recovery if there is an attack.

“What this application does, it protects your data,” Victorian explained. “Consider it an electronic vault. And if you are ever attacked, there is a very efficient method of getting your information back.”

The East Baton Rouge Parish school district is the second largest in Louisiana, with about 41,600 students. It has more than 5,200 full-time employees and more than 3,000 teachers.

In other action, the board voted 6-3 for a resolution that would set a symbolic ban on the release of helium balloons at school functions because of the balloons’ “deadly effects on wildlife.” The board plans a final vote Dec. 12.

The resolution sets no consequences if balloons are released, but is meant to show the school system’s disapproval of the practice.

Board member Dawn Collins said she got the idea when board watcher James Finney suggested a ban after seeing that balloons were released last year at McKinley High marking the death of a student there. Collins said she wants the school system to provide schools with alternatives to balloon releases.

Board members Mike Gaudet, Tramelle Howard and Evelyn Ware-Jackson voted no, though none of them objected to the substance of the resolution.

Gaudet expressed concern that passing the resolution would put pressure on the board to consider an array of social and environmental issues disconnected or only tangentially connected to education.

“I just don’t want to open up Pandora’s box,” Gaudet said.

Email Charles Lussier at clussier@theadvocate.com and follow him on Twitter, @Charles_Lussier.