Kansas City school district turns to experts, FBI to help investigate cyberattack

The malware attack forced the district to cancel both in-person and virtual classes Monday


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Robert A. Cronkleton
The Kansas City Star

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The Park Hill School District in Kansas City’s northland is turning to national experts and the FBI to determine the extent of a cyberattack that forced the district to cancel both in-person and online classes Monday, the district’s superintendent announced.

“Our technology team has worked for more than 24 hours to try to restore our systems and we are working with national experts, including some from the FBI to investigate this issue and try to minimize damage,” said Jeanette Cowherd, Park Hill superintendent, during a press conference at district offices Monday morning.

The malware attack occurred early Sunday morning and affected many of the applications that the district uses for learning and running its schools, she said.

Because the district is in the middle of the investigation, Cowherd said it is unable to share details of the attack. The district on Monday was still trying to determine which systems had been targeted by the cyberattack, but is hopeful that safety precautions and systems prevented unauthorized access to student’s and staff’s personal information.

“We are bringing in outside experts to help us investigate just to make sure,” Cowherd said.

The FBI is aware of the incident and has been in contact with representatives from the Park Hill School District, said Bridget Patton, a spokeswoman for the FBI. She directed any additional questions to the school district.

Cowherd said classes were canceled not only because students wouldn’t have access to their applications, but because of school safety concerns as well.

Using the district’s student information system as an example, Cowherd said they’d need to have access to the emergency contacts for its students in case something happens. The district’s phones were working, but it was difficult to get to it’s website and emails were running slower.

While the laptops that students take home were not affected, students weren’t able to access many of the applications that they use to do their school work, Cowherd said. The district first learned of the attack when it started receiving complaints that the applications weren’t working correctly.

The cancellation of classes came at a time students in grades 6-12 were returning to classrooms.

“We were going to have everybody in school — it was our first day of school basically,” Cowherd said. “That’s why we worked so hard to try to get school opened today is because it was such an important day and every day of learning is important for us.”

Cowherd apologized for the late notice of the cancellation. Originally, officials were optimistic that they would be able to get everything up and running and avoid a major disruption.

“When we met this morning at 4:30 a.m. with other district leaders, it looked like we were going to be able to have school,” Cowherd said. “However, we found out after 6 a.m. that we had an unexpected issue that meant that the systems were not going to be available at all.”

Nicole Kirby, Park Hill’s director of communication services, declined to disclose what that issue was, saying that gets into some of the investigation and what the technological issues were that caused it. She said the district wants to keep that information back until it has all of its answers.

“We definitely will want to share that with you and with our public, but we want to make sure that we get this investigated to try to protect our systems and our people,” Kirby said.

Because of the late notice, the district ran its buses and picked up any students waiting at bus stops and kept them safe until families could be contacted.

Because it was still uncertain how long it would take for the district to restore its computer systems, Cowherd couldn’t answer whether there would be school on Tuesday. The district said it would notify families by 6 p.m. Monday if they will not be having classes. The district also wasn’t able to answer whether the missed school day would have to be made up at a later date.

Malware is malicious software designed to disrupt the normal operations of a computer, steal data, access secure systems or disrupt an organization.

The district does have firewalls, anti-virus, anti-malware and other intrusion prevention systems in place, said Derrick Unruh, Park Hill’s director of technology.

“We’re working really hard right now to find the root cause of this situation so that we can learn and make sure that before we implement the full fix for this situation that we’ve got all the safety and security measures in place so that we’re not making the situation worse,” he said.

The district, which is in southern Platte County, had an K-12 enrollment of just under 12,000 students and 1,800 teachers and staff members. Based on it’s enrollment, it’s the 16th largest school district in Missouri.

It draws students from parts of Kansas City, Houston Lake, Lake Waukomis, Northmoor, Parkville, Platte Woods, Riverside, Weatherby Lake and unincorporated areas of Platte County.

“Our goal is to get ourselves back in school as quickly as they can, but to do it in a safe manner,” Cowherd said. “But also make sure that this investigation has a chance to actually run its course so that we can actually get the answers that everybody wants.”

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