Secure school networks: Protecting children from online threats

Modern educational institutions require extensive access to information and materials on the internet, but they are also under intense pressure from government, parents and special interest groups to police their networks to prevent the abuse of children and young people in their care. Traditionally, with limited access to computers and social networking platforms, the threats to children online were contained to vulnerable and often isolated groups. However, with technology becoming more affordable and the explosion of mobile device popularity amongst young people over recent years, the threat of online abuse has significantly increased.

The global adoption of social media platforms has added to the situation, providing additional channels and opportunities to target children, sometimes resulting in high profile cases of grooming and even radicalisation – culminating in some children travelling to Syria to join with extremist groups. Until now the greatest obstacles to combatting such activities have been a lack of standardised regulations to govern online child protection and advise carers, teachers and parents on how to approach vulnerable individuals and the appropriate response when abuse is uncovered. In response, the UK Department of Education (DfE) has drafted a revised version of the Keeping Children Safe in Education (KCSIE) guidance, to provide new protocols, recommendations and practices to increase awareness amongst teachers and mentors caring for children whilst they are at school. 

The cloak of social media

Often, the greatest challenge for schools is that the young people in their charge tend to know a lot more about social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram and WhatsApp, than the teachers do themselves. According to SonicWall’s recent Keeping Children Safe in Education statutory guidance and changes to online safeguarding whitepaper, “1 in 4 children has experienced something upsetting on a social networking site and one in three children has been the victim of cyber bullying”. Many schools do not have the necessary expertise to monitor and secure these channels, not to mention that the cost of maintaining IT infrastructure and services can lead to outdated and ineffective solutions being employed to manage the IT ecosystem. However, even with a strong security platform and updated child filters enabled on the network, it’s necessary to maintain community vigilance in order to identify vulnerable children and intervene. 

This uncovers another important issue, namely that identifying victims can be extremely difficult and teachers lacking experience in spotting the signs of abuse will struggle to provide the necessary support to victims. As referenced in the whitepaper, poor record keeping and a lack of structured safeguarding networks means that schools are often unable to monitor individual children and ensure that their voices are heard and the appropriate actions are taken. To combat online abuse – as with cyber threats themselves – it is necessary to isolate individual threats and vulnerabilities to ensure that security is maintained and vulnerable users are kept safe. Therefore schools and colleges need to adopt a two pronged strategy in order to maximise the safeguards around the children in their care. 

Fighting child abuse online and in the classroom

The fight against online abuse and cyber-bullying begins with the right tools. Schools cannot hope to create a safe online ecosystem for their students without a unified threat management strategy. Next generation firewalls with updated definitions and child filters are a must to act as the first line of defence in monitoring the school network for unwanted materials. Schools must ensure that their security provider uses specific child-protection filters, including the child abuse image content (CAIC) list from the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) and the police assessed list of unlawful terrorist content, produced on behalf of the Home Office. They should also give careful consideration to how the applied filters can protect, yet not deny access to legitimate information required as part of the normal curriculum.

With many schools having implemented wireless access points, it’s also important to set up tailored mobile security protocols to manage access to the network and ensure any and all devices are kept secure whilst connected. As educational institutions often have restricted IT budgets; managed security services and simplified security management might also provide benefits, ensuring the highest levels of protection without the need for security technicians and experts on site. 

With the right tools installed, the focus of the KCSIE is to set up an effective protection framework and provide teachers with the knowledge and expertise to recognise the signs of abuse amongst the children in their care and take appropriate action. As part of the new guidance, in addition to implementing secure network security and monitoring systems, schools will need to establish programmes of online security leadership amongst the teaching staff. This is hoped to encourage children to regularly share their views, concerns and thoughts, so that they might be recorded and acted upon by those responsible for their wellbeing. To achieve this, teachers will be required to undergo comprehensive inductions which include training in the school’s safeguarding policy, procedures for identifying issues and referral routes to the designated safeguarding lead. Finally, the KCSIE will promote the active role of teaching children how to use technology safely and how to adopt greater responsibility online within the school community.

A helping hand

The advancement of technology has left schools progressively less effective in managing online threats and abuse of children and vulnerable young people. The new KCSIE guidance will go some way to remedying the situation, however, schools without experienced IT leaders will require assistance in choosing and implementing new security technologies that comply with the updated guidelines. Therefore, in order to manage burgeoning computer and mobile device networks within a secure environment, it will be necessary to employ third party assistance, both to implement new security technologies and advise teachers and mentors in effective modern security practices. 

IT security vendors are best placed to help in this regard. With extensive knowledge of the protection of sensitive data and users and with additional experience managing the transition to modern security solutions, they can provide educational institutions with everything they need to comply with the latest guidance from the DfE and effectively safeguard against online threats. With the right security tools and measures in place, schools and colleges can be confident that their students are safe to explore the internet and access the benefits of increased mobility on offer from modern mobile device ecosystems, without fear of abuse.

Florian Malecki, International Product Marketing Director, SonicWall
Image Credit: Sergey Nivens / Shutterstock