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Cyberterrorism Spurs A Montana Board To Go Beyond Knee-jerk Reactions

Anna Deese

The Flathead Valley in northwest Montana had a rocky start to the 2017-18 school year.

Just weeks after the school year started, a cyberterrorist group infiltrated several area districts’ information technology systems for blackmail purposes. The group used the data to make threats to the physical safety of both staff and students. It also said it would release confidential information to the public if the ransom demands were not met.

Local law enforcement agencies, the FBI, and private cybersecurity companies were engaged. While the group, TheDarkOverlord Solutions, was quickly identified as being from out of the country, the graphic, ongoing threats were enough to warrant the shutdown of schools, day care centers, and libraries across the county, impacting over 15,000 students. Everything was closed Thursday, Friday, and all weekend.

During the shutdown, districts regularly communicated with the press, community, and families via joint releases, social media, automated calls, and emails. By Sunday night, the local superintendents, working in conjunction with law enforcement officials, agreed the immediate physical threat that closed facilities and cancelled activities was gone.

On Monday, most schools opened their doors to staff—meeting with them to debrief the cyberterrorism event and address safety concerns. On Tuesday, the doors opened to students.

In preparation for students’ return, district leadership across the valley hosted community meetings. While public comments varied greatly, most of the questions and responses indicated the public’s appreciation of the approach taken by the districts. Student safety was clearly paramount and communications were frequent and as open as law enforcement recommended during the ongoing investigation. But this episode obviously made everyone—the public and school leaders—reflect on the safety and security of their students.

In the Whitefish School District, Superintendent Heather Davis Schmidt faced concerns about the security of student data, the district’s bring-your-own-device-policy, the school calendar and makeup dates (not a good idea to use up allocated snow days before the first winter storm when you live in Montana), and, of course, general facility security.

AN OPPORTUNITY ARISES

Shortly after the cyberterrorism event, the Whitefish community approved a bond for the construction of a new elementary building. The timing was right to start a more in-depth conversation regarding student safety and security issues. Davis Schmidt brought together the board of trustees and a meeting facilitator for a special meeting to discuss the creation of a citizens work group focused on those topics.

Whitefish’s seven board members are a generally cohesive and thoughtful group. Trustees rarely miss meetings, and each item normally has a board discussion that is a minimum of several thoughtful questions (and, occasionally, goes long enough to require a break). The board frequently votes in unison but even when we do not, we move forward together. We also frequently, though not always, vote in a manner that supports administrative recommendations. We reference our strategic goals in decision-making. We like each other and we like serving the community.

Several members have some degree of education experience, two have prior military service, most represent local businesses, and more than half have students currently in or soon entering the district. Experience ranges from over a decade to a few months. Active participation, comradery, and trust are generally the norm both between members and with the board and administration. We’re a functional, thoughtful group—even when topics aren’t easy.

So why would our “functional, thoughtful group” need a facilitator? This facilitator has worked with the Whitefish School Board before for a variety of functions: board retreats, negotiations, and strategic visioning. Her background makes it easy for her to connect to each person in the room, which is no small feat. It’s natural for each of us to see issues through our own lens and bring our own biases—invisible to us but coloring everything we say and shading, potentially drastically, our understanding of topics at hand.

Of course, as elected members of the board, our biases are important to consider and are key reasons we’re at the table in the first place. But sometimes those biases need to be managed. Sometimes you want more of either a convergence or a divergence in ideas. And sometimes it’s just best to ensure an outsider drives the discussion so no one feels manipulated or overrun, or escapes responsibility.

CITIZENS WORK GROUP

The topic of the first meeting with the facilitator was to plan for the development of a Safety and Security Citizens Work Group, including the definition of the structure of the group (duration and representation) as well as the desired outcomes. Essentially, we were defining the problem we wanted the work group to explore. This definition was critical not only for us as a board but for the facilitator, who would go on to manage the work group meetings, as well.

At the end of our two hours of facilitated discussions, we developed a charter directing the work group to develop suggestions to present to the board related to physical, emotional, and mental safety and security in the schools. The actual charter statement wasn’t anything we probably couldn’t have developed in the first 10 minutes of the meeting. However, the discussion it took to get consensus laid bare each person’s interests and expectations so that our facilitator would be able to ensure the work group comes back with considerate and encompassing suggestions.

We established a shared vision and a “frame” for the work group that better empowers those involved in the next steps. Being too prescriptive might result in unmotivated participants attempting to check off boxes in hopes that their recommendations would meet what the board was already planning to do. Being too quick—writing that broad charter in 10 minutes—could result in recommendations that the board would never consider or ideas inspired by only the most vocal contributors. Additionally, the board is asking for approximately 20 volunteers to spend up to 20 hours doing research and diving deeply into myriad issues. How motivated would any of us be if we were placed on such a committee?

As Daniel Pink notes, people are most motivated to do complex tasks when given autonomy, working for mastery, and driven by a purpose. Our charter and the process used to develop it sets limits on the group but still allows a great deal of freedom and autonomy. It directs the superintendent to select members for the work group who represent important segments of the school community (i.e., having a child with special needs, families that depend on the bus) and to identify experts to serve as nonmember resources that have mastery in certain community segments (i.e., mental health professionals, first responders) and whose point of view is clearly highly valued.

Their expertise and perspectives will inspire deeper thought in varying facets of the core task. And each member can still enter the work group feeling a sense of purpose that goes beyond just checking off board-directed boxes. We are asking a lot of the work group, so the least we can do is provide motivating factors (and snacks).

PROBLEM-SOLVING SAFETY

What will come of the work group’s suggestions? Probably more facilitated meetings as we find our path forward.

The board is clearly in the early stages of problem-solving safety and security concerns, and that’s one of the important reasons to bring in a facilitator. Our disparate backgrounds mean a skilled facilitator can help not only ensure we’re speaking the same language, but understanding it and putting it into practice.

While the board functions in the world of education, we’re not all skilled at “edu-speak” and even those that are, like our superintendent or director of curriculum and instruction, can speak greatly different dialects of education-related problem-solving languages. Add to that variability the reality that trustees spend most of their time in noneducation work: How do our nonboard domains relate to education? As we dive deeply into problems that impact the district’s limited financial, personnel, and time resources, we don’t want to argue over jargon.

Regardless of what problem-solving “language” we each use, the board’s development of the work group charter is perhaps step 1 or 2 and the work group will do the legwork of the information-gathering steps. Ultimately, the board will make decisions in later steps that will be codified into policies or procedures and, as seen in the final steps of all the processes, the district will monitor and adjust those as the landscape of student safety and security changes. Hopefully, the adjustments won’t require the process to start again.

LESSONS FOR LEADERSHIP

Our superintendent or the board could have decided to use the cyberterrorism event as a way to dictate changes in a top-down approach and, given the fear in the community, such an autocratic decision probably would not have been unwelcomed.

However, as the year wears on and new issues come to the forefront, our attention will change. Being immediately reactive to a single problem increases the likelihood that we’re not seeing the full scope of an issue and we’ll need to re-address and revise our responses ad nauseam. The public and staff will lose trust in us if we change directives and redefine goals and priorities with each whiff of something new.

Ensuring we’re all evaluating the same problem and slowing down the process with the help of a facilitator and citizens work group gives each trustee a chance to learn the issues and to judge options fairly. It also ensures administrators don’t need to scramble to find ways to adjust their limited budgets mid-year in response to concerns raised in the light of a current event.

Nor can the problem du jour be used to drive an individual’s agenda: For example, the administrative team and board know there is a limited lifespan left on our student data management system. We’ve been exploring new options and discussing it regularly. But the cyberterrorism event could have been used to push to immediately move to a newer platform.

Instead, it was again brought up in the charter discussion and the work group may consider it as a part of its discussions, giving us more information. While we may still decide about this outside of the work group, this demonstrates how community involvement and the facilitator can help us avoid making a knee-jerk reaction.

Boards act as one; while each member has a vote, no individual has any authority. We question, we contemplate, we debate ideas, and then we take informed positions and a vote. Our leadership is limited: We lead through policy adoption and setting a frame within which the superintendent that we hire is expected to work. The establishment of the Safety and Security Citizens Work Group will help us identify the community’s view on those topics so that we can decide where and how they belong in policy.

The reality is we must work with administration to identify priorities for allocating money, personnel, and time. This balancing act is done on every topic addressed by the board, and often individuals have the skills to make the judgments necessary for a vote. But when looking at big problems with big impacts, it’s important to have a shared language and understanding and that takes time: both time for individuals to learn deeply, and time apart from the immediate cause for a fair response.


Anna Deese (annaddeese@gmail.com) is a member of the Whitefish School Board, in Whitefish, Montana.

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