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Carol Benson is baptized by Pastor Phil Price during church Jan. 14 at First Presbyterian Church in downtown Twin Falls. Benson was also elevated to Deacon in the church.

‘We’ve learned a few things’: 6 weeks after a ransomware attack, the Jerome School District is still recovering

JEROME — Nearly six weeks after being hit by a massive ransomware cyberattack, the Jerome School District is still working to recover.

On Dec. 11, school district officials found out much of its data was encrypted. Each affected file included a message from the cybercriminal: If you want your data in a usable form again, you must pay us four bitcoin.

The value of the virtual currency fluctuates. But at the time, it was equivalent to a total of $65,000.

The Jerome School District didn’t pay the ransom. School officials opted to rebuilt server systems using backed up files — ones that hadn’t been affected by the cyberattack.

“I know we’re very fortunate to have the (information technology) staff we have,” business manager Brian Bridwell said Friday. “Without this group we have, I don’t know what we could do. I don’t know legally if a school district can pay a ransom.”

The best information the school district has now is the cyberattack encrypted data, but wasn’t a theft and no confidential information was compromised, Superintendent Dale Layne said. “To our best of our knowledge, there wasn’t any data stolen.”

School district officials weren’t available to provide information to the Times-News about the incident shortly after it occurred.

It was the Jerome School District’s first time as the victim of a ransomeware attack. The Idaho Attorney General’s Office hasn’t been notified of any other school districts affected, spokesman Scott Graf wrote in an email to the Times-News.

But it doesn’t mean school districts and businesses aren’t being targeted, he said. Crimes may have been reported to local law enforcement agencies instead.

The Jerome School District has now been able to restore its most of its computer systems, such as payroll and its student database.

“We have the critical data restored for the most part,” Layne said.

About 95 percent of processes are functional, but there are still some connectivity issues, such as with a food service computer program and PowerSchool, a student management system.

And the school district is still using a temporary website.

Within a week after the cyberattack, the school district started working with Kroll, a worldwide cyber security company. The school district’s insurance carrier is covering that cost, Layne said.

So far, “they haven’t been able to give specific answers about what information has been affected,” Layne said, but it’s very similar to other cases they’ve seen across the nation. “We’re trying to find out how (the cybercriminals) got in.”

Layne has done research and found out similar cyberattacks have happened all over the nation.

“It sounds like they — whoever they are — do try to go after municipalities like schools and hospitals,” he said, because they don’t tend to have a large IT staff.

The school district’s three-person technology department — with help from Jerome High School IT workers and the district’s vendors — spent hours restoring and cleaning up systems, rebuilding computers and buying new equipment. It also had to upgrade some of the server systems.

There were multiple backups, Layne said, but some were affected by the cyberattack.

“Kroll was very complimentary to our IT department,” Layne said, adding the company was surprised the school district had backed up files it could get up-and-running so quickly. “There have been situations where whatever entity paid ransom to get data back.”

All of the Jerome School District’s campuses were affected by the cyberattack. The district has about 4,000 students and several hundred employees.

One of the biggest impacts: The phone system was down for a couple of days.

“The phones were one of the primary systems we restored first,” Bridwell said, followed by the district’s financial software later on.

When phones weren’t working, parents couldn’t call in their child’s school absence. Instead, parents were asked to send an email to all of the school secretaries and they’d receive a phone call back from a school employee via cell phone.

In classrooms, some lesson plans were affected. All Windows-based computers in classrooms and computer labs weren’t working. But mobile computing devices such as Chromebooks were still up-and-running.

At school campuses, day-to-day life is somewhat back to normal. But it’s still an ongoing effort at the school district office and the extra workload continues.

As a result of the cyberattack, “we’ve learned a few things,” Layne said. “We’re doing a better job with preparing.”


Teacher Susan Fullen helps Kamp Rongen during their technology class in January 2017 at Jerome High School.



Democrats, GOP try to dodge blame for shuttered government

WASHINGTON — Hours after shuttering much of the federal government, feuding Democrats and Republicans in Congress spent Saturday dodging blame for a paralyzing standoff over immigration and showed few signs of progress on negotiations needed to end it.

The finger-pointing played out in rare weekend proceedings in both the House and Senate, where lawmakers were eager to show voters they were actively working for a solution — or at least actively making their case why the other party was at fault. The scene highlighted the high political stakes for both parties in an election-year shutdown whose consequences were far from clear.

"The American people cannot begin to understand why the Senate Democratic leader thinks the entire government should be shut down until he gets his way on illegal immigration," said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., hours after a last-chance Senate vote failed.

Democrats refused to provide the votes needed to reopen the government until they strike a deal with President Donald Trump protecting young immigrants from deportation, providing disaster relief and boosting spending for opioid treatment and other domestic programs.

Democrats feel "very, very strongly about the issues" said Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader, adding that he believes "the American people are on our side."

The fighting followed a late-night vote in which Senate Democrats blocked a House-passed measure that would have kept agencies functioning for four weeks.

Republicans began the day hopeful they might pick off Democratic support for a three-week version and bring the episode to a quick end. Democrats are insisting on an alternative lasting only several days — which they think would pressure Republicans to cut an immigration deal — and say they'll kill the three-week version when the Senate votes on it by early Monday.

The shutdown came on the anniversary of Trump's inauguration. As lawmakers bickered in the Capitol, protesters marched outside in a reprise of the women's march from a year ago. The president remained out of sight and canceled plans to travel to his resort in Florida for the weekend. He did tweet, making light of the timing by saying Democrats "wanted to give me a nice present" to mark the start of his second year in office.

Trump worked the phones, staying in touch with McConnell, while White House legislative affairs director Marc Short and budget chief Mick Mulvaney met at the Capitol with House Republicans. GOP lawmakers voiced support for the White House stance of not negotiating while the government was shuttered.

Tempers were short and theatrics high. Lawmakers bickered over blame, hypocrisy and even the posters brought to the House floor. While neither chamber voted on a measure to open the government, the House did vote on whether a poster displayed by Republican Rep. Bradley Byrne of Alabama violated the House rules on decorum. The House voted to allow the poster, which bore a photo of Schumer and the quote "the politics of idiocy."

While Republicans blamed the breakdown on Schumer, Democrats increasingly focused their messaging on criticizing Trump, whose popularity is dismal. Democrats were using his zigzagging stance in immigration talks — first encouraging deals, then rejecting them — to underscore his first, chaotic year in office.

"Negotiating with President Trump is like negotiating with Jell-O," Schumer said.

Short compared Democrats' actions to "a 2-year-old temper tantrum."

Republicans seemed content to hope additional Democrats will break as pressure builds and the impact of the shutdown becomes clearer. In the late-night vote blocking the bill preventing a shutdown, five Democrats from states Trump won in the 2016 election voted to keep government functioning.

Republicans argued that Democrats were blocking extra Pentagon funds by keeping government closed and thwarting a long-term budget deal.

"I question if Senate Democrats are really united," Short told reporters. "We think there'll be more today and hopefully they'll continue to see that it's not wise to hold our troops hostage."

But pressure on Republicans could mount with the new workweek Monday and the impact of the federal shutdown becomes more apparent to people.

While the Statue of Liberty — the nation's emblem of its immigrant past — and Philadelphia's Liberty Bell were closed Saturday, visitors had access to other iconic national parks like Yellowstone. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke tweeted a photo of himself talking to students at the World War II Memorial in Washington, blocks from White House.

Social Security and most other safety-net programs were unaffected by the lapse in federal spending authority. Critical government functions continued, with uniformed service members, health inspectors and law enforcement officers set to work without pay. But if no deal is reached before Monday, hundreds of thousands of federal employees will be furloughed.

For leverage, Democrats were banking on Trump's wobbly presidency and the GOP's control of the White House, the House and Senate — a triumvirate that until now had never allowed a government closure to occur.

"Republicans in Congress plunged head-first into the Trump shutdown," Schumer told reporters. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., called Republicans "so incompetent and negligent that they couldn't get it together to keep the government open."

The Associated Press  

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky. listens during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, after the Senate confirmed Betsy DeVos as education secretary.