Louisiana School District Notifies Data Breach Victims After News Investigation

After reporters revealed thousands had their sensitive info leaked online, AG鈥檚 office issued notification warning to St. Landry schools, emails show.

Eamonn Fitzmaurice/四虎影院

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This story was produced in partnership with The Acadiana Advocate, a Louisiana-based newsroom.

Individuals whose sensitive information was made public after a July 2023 cyberattack on the St. Landry Parish School Board were not notified for five months 鈥 long after state law mandates and only after a newspaper investigation prompted the Louisiana Attorney General鈥檚 Office to contact the district and warn school officials of their obligations. 

The long-delayed notification was revealed in emails and other records obtained by The Acadiana Advocate this month in response to a Jan. 9 public records request. 

They showed that within hours of the reporters revealing that a data breach exposed sensitive information about thousands of teachers and students, a lawyer with the state attorney general鈥檚 office was on the phone to the school district. The attorney, focused on consumer protection, questioned them 鈥渄irectly in response to the article,” one email states.

The Dec. 4 investigation, co-published by The Advocate and 四虎影院, contradicted school district assertions that no sensitive student, employee or business owners鈥 information had been exposed online after the July attack. It found the St. Landry Parish School Board likely violated a state data breach notification law when it failed to notify victims or the state attorney general for months. 

L. Christopher Styron, the lawyer with the state attorney general鈥檚 office, reacted swiftly, calling the district to inquire about the incident. He followed up with an email outlining St. Landry鈥檚 data breach response obligations under state law 鈥 rules that school officials had failed to follow

Under Louisiana鈥檚 breach notification law, schools and other entities are required to notify affected individuals 鈥渨ithout unreasonable delay,鈥 and no later than 60 days after a breach is discovered. Entities that fail to alert the state attorney general鈥檚 office within 10 days of notifying affected individuals can face fines up to $5,000 for each day past the 60-day mark.

The late-in-the-year series of events prompted St. Landry officials, who long held that no sensitive data was stolen or published online, to take action. Officials told state lawyers it alerted victims that their information had been compromised. It鈥檚 unclear how many victims among thousands of students, district employees and local and out-of-state businesses, received the letter. Medusa, a nefarious cybercrime syndicate that has carried out numerous devastating attacks on school districts in the last year, took credit for the St. Landry breach. 

The school board鈥檚 attorney Courtney Joiner wrote in a response email to Styron a day later that he was 鈥渨orking with the School Board to address the notice issue without further delay.鈥 

In a letter dated Dec. 21, schools Superintendent Milton Batiste III acknowledged to an unverified number of victims that 鈥渟ensitive information may have been obtained by an unknown malicious third-party,鈥 according to the records. Officials didn鈥檛 send a formal notice to the attorney general鈥檚 office until Jan. 10, a day after The Advocate filed its public records request.

Donna Sarver, who worked as a math teacher in St. Landry for three years before leaving in 2020, is among those whose personal information was compromised. In an interview last week, she blasted the district for sending her a letter in the mail 鈥渨ell after the fact鈥 that she had been victimized. 

鈥淚 really thought it was too little, too late,鈥 she said. 鈥淭his should have happened much earlier.鈥

Sarver and other data breach victims, including parents, students and business owners whose tax records are held by St. Landry schools, were unaware until the late December notification that district leaders had failed to secure their sensitive information and left them unknowingly exposed to identity theft for months.

It took the district 149 days after the breach to tell victims they 鈥渕ay have been impacted by the incident鈥 and another 19 to formally notify the attorney general. 

The front entrance of the St. Landry Parish School Board鈥檚 central office. (Photo via The Acadiana Advocate)

Officials with the school board declined to answer any questions for this story. A list of written questions were submitted but officials had yet to respond by the time of publication. The attorney general鈥檚 office didn鈥檛 respond to interview requests. 

St. Landry鈥檚 response resembles that of school districts across the country, investigative reporting by 四虎影院 has revealed. Cybergangs have ramped up their attacks on school districts and now routinely threaten to leak sensitive files in a bid to coerce seven-figure ransom payments. As federal officials warn of the burgeoning threat鈥檚 impact on students and teachers, education leaders nationwide have sought to downplay the attacks鈥 severity and obscure any subsequent harm to individuals.

James Lee, the chief operating officer of California-based said the delay by St. Landry officials is 鈥渞eflective of a problem we have鈥 nationally where cyberattack victims have grown increasingly resistant to filing breach notices. 

鈥淚n many instances, it鈥檚 because the decision to issue a notice resides 100% with the organization that loses control of the information,鈥 Lee said. 鈥淗ighlighting circumstances like this will help us address these gaps so we can get better notifications to consumers when their information has been compromised and they鈥檙e at risk.鈥 

鈥楩or reasons that are unknown鈥

In August 2023, the 12,000-student district some 63 miles west of Baton Rouge acknowledged its computer network had come under attack but told the public the breached servers didn鈥檛 contain any sensitive employee or student information.

But 四虎影院鈥檚 data analysis of some 211,000 leaked records revealed they contained the Social Security numbers of at least 13,500 people, some 100,000 sales tax records for local and out-of-state companies and several thousand student records including home addresses and special education status. 

Similarly, the district appeared to offer inaccurate, misleading and contradictory claims in its delayed response to the attorney general, its letter to data breach victims and statements to the press.

In its letter to the AG鈥檚 office, the district stated that the stolen files had been 鈥渞ecovered.鈥 However, a check by 四虎影院 last week revealed they remain readily available for download on Telegram, the encrypted social media platform Medusa uses to make public the records of victims who don鈥檛 pay to keep them private. 

Superintendent Batiste wrote in that Jan. 10 notice that the district鈥檚 computer network had been encrypted by 鈥渁 malicious person or group鈥 in July but that St. Landry had never received a ransom demand. 

Yet, among the cache of district documents available on Telegram is a text file titled 鈥淟OOK!!!!,鈥 which includes a link to Medusa鈥檚 dark-web outpost, complete with a $1 million ransom demand and a countdown clock warning education leaders their time to respond is running out. The note also contained links to Medusa鈥檚 Telegram channel and to a website designed to resemble a technology news blog 鈥 a front of sorts 鈥 with a video highlighting the St. Landry records in its possession. 

It was in August 2023, that the Louisiana State Police Cyber Crime Unit notified school officials that 鈥渁n unknown number of files containing sensitive information鈥 had been compromised, the letter states. That same month, Batiste had assured the public otherwise. 

Files posted to a Medusa leak site 鈥渨ere recovered by the Cyber Crime Unit鈥 with the state police, Batiste鈥檚 letter continues, 鈥渂ut, for reasons that are unknown, the files recovered from the dedicated leak site by the Cyber Crime Unit were not provided to us until December 6鈥 鈥 two days after the newspaper investigation published. 

鈥楬ow do you recover it?鈥

The cybercriminals behind the St. Landry breach employed 鈥渄ouble extortion,鈥 a growing ransomware strategy where hackers break into a victim鈥檚 computer network through phishing emails, download compromising records and lock them with an encryption key. Criminals demand a ransom payment from victims to unlock the encrypted files and leak them online if they refuse to pay. The stolen information is routinely flaunted on the dark web and other shady corners of the internet. 

In asserting to reporters last year that the Medusa hack didn鈥檛 lead to a breach of sensitive information 鈥 despite overwhelming evidence that it had 鈥 district officials acknowledged they hadn鈥檛 taken any steps to understand the scope of what was stolen or to notify individual victims. 

Byron Wimberly, the district鈥檚 computer center supervisor, insisted at the time that sensitive records had not been stored on the hacked servers. The files that were uploaded by the ransomware gang, he suggested, must have originated somewhere other than St. Landry schools 鈥 even though thousands of them contain district letterhead and more than a dozen victims verified the validity of their stolen information. 

Tricia Fontenot, the district鈥檚 supervisor of instructional technology, told reporters late last year that law enforcement investigators had never filled them in on the stolen data or if any sensitive information had been leaked at all. 

鈥淲e never received reports of the actual information that was obtained,鈥 Fontenot said. 鈥淎ll of that is under investigation. We have not received anything in regard to that investigation.鈥

Fontenot鈥檚 statement contradicts Batiste鈥檚 timeline to the AG saying state police informed them in August that files containing sensitive information had been accessed. A state police spokesperson said in an email last week the agency finished its investigation on Aug. 20. 

Reached by phone last week, Fontenot declined to comment.

The Dec. 21 letter that school officials sent to data breach victims states that the district was hacked by 鈥渁n unknown malicious鈥 threat actor but isn鈥檛 explicit to recipients about whether their information was included.

It remains unclear how many of the thousands of data breach victims identified in the news outlets鈥 investigation 鈥 including teachers, staff, students and sales tax filers from across the country 鈥 received the Dec. 21 notice. 

The data breach letter states that victims were being notified months after the incident because 鈥渢he process of obtaining and then reviewing the acquired files took several months.鈥

鈥淲e are now in the process of notifying individuals whose personal information we believe to have been included in the acquired files, including you,鈥 the letter states, acknowledging that stolen information contains individuals鈥 names, addresses, birth dates, Social Security numbers and driver鈥檚 licenses. 

Social Security cards, birth certificates and other personal files were among the thousands of records stolen in a cyberattack on the St. Landry Parish School Board. (Screenshot)

Louisiana鈥檚 data breach notification law doesn鈥檛 apply to some types of sensitive files exposed in the breach, such as student disciplinary records. 

School districts nationwide, along with other government agencies and for-profit companies, routinely hire cybersecurity experts and attorneys to investigate the scope of data leaks and to notify breach victims in compliance with state laws, partly because of the complexities involved. A federal breach notification law doesn鈥檛 exist and state requirements vary. 

School officials told reporters last year they expected law enforcement to investigate the attack’s impact on individual data breach victims. Lee of the nonprofit Identity Theft Resource Center said such a practice would be highly unusual. 

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鈥淚n fact, I don鈥檛 think I鈥檝e ever heard of that kind of arrangement,鈥 he said. 鈥淢ost organizations do hire their own cybersecurity experts whether it鈥檚 a school district or it鈥檚 a nonprofit or a commercial entity.鈥 

Sarver, the former St. Landry math teacher, said school leaders left data breach victims to fend for themselves by waiting months to tell them their personal information had come up for grabs on a website maintained by criminals.

While the district offered a year of credit monitoring 鈥 a common practice after entities suffer data breaches 鈥 Sarver said she decided not to enroll. The service would last just 12 months; her records could be available forever. 

鈥淗ow do you recover it once it鈥檚 out there?鈥 she said. 鈥淒o you tell the people who got it illegally that you have to take it down and hope they do?鈥

This story was supported by a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism

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