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Through Wars, Tornadoes, and Cyberattacks, He’s a Guardian of Student Privacy

As a school district tech director who puts data privacy at the top of his priority list, Jun Kim says “no” a lot.

No, that app doesn’t have sufficient privacy protections. No, you can’t bring a new platform into your classroom just because you like it. No, you can’t use that technology until you fill out these forms.

All those “no” responses can be exhausting for him—and the district’s teachers and school leaders. So when Kim, the director of technology for Moore public schools outside Oklahoma City, stepped into his job about a decade ago, he had a ready-made hashtag to poke fun at his professional role: #junbrokeit.

Adding the faux social media signifier to many of his emails is Kim’s way of showing he gets it: Making technology work for teaching and learning while prioritizing things like securing student data can be time-consuming and frustrating.

It’s self-effacing, empathetic, just plain funny—the embodiment of Kim’s leadership style, said Amy Simpson, the principal of Moore’s Oakridge Elementary School.

“He is taking ownership of the technology ups and downs that we face in the district,” she said. Though Kim doesn’t use the “broke it” joke often these days, he still champions the message that “it’s OK to push the boundaries and be innovative and do these things that are going to give our kids the skills they need to be lifelong learners. But at the same time, understand things may fail, and that’s OK, too.”

And if technology—or the district’s policies and procedures around it—aren’t working for particular staffers, they know who is responsible. “He’s saying, ‘Don’t go blame anyone else. I’m the leader. Jun broke it,’” Simpson said.

Kim’s sense of humor is counterbalanced by what he says his wife calls his take-action, “military voice,” honed over the more than three decades that Kim has juggled his work as an educator—teacher, coach, administrator, principal, district tech director—with military service, mostly in the Oklahoma National Guard.

“If the military has taught me one thing, it’s that you look at processes, how you make [them], while taking care of your people,” Kim said. “Technology nowadays, it’s a dime a dozen. You can throw whatever tech in there you want, but if people don’t care, if they don’t know how to use it, it’s a paperweight.”

Spreading his know-how throughout the state

Kim has not only set up and consistently refined a thorough—but educator-friendly—process for vetting platforms to help secure student and staff information in his own district, he’s also helped ensure the entire state can benefit from his knowledge and from his district’s understanding of how to keep student and staff data safe.

Kim, whose suburban district is the fourth largest in the state at more than 25,600 students, leads a team of 37 full-time staff and six high school student interns.

That level of technology support is much higher than what most districts in the Sooner State have, said Jack Green, a former district tech director and a founding member of Oklahoma’s chapter of the Consortium for School Networking.

“Most of Oklahoma is rural and has one person at most that’s responsible for information technology,” Green said. And tech is far from their only role, he added. “Typically, they’re driving a bus, they may be serving as custodian, a principal, a teacher, a superintendent.”

That leaves little time for scrutinizing the fine print on software contracts to understand how educational technology companies will collect and use student data. So Kim has worked to create a statewide clearinghouse of platforms, applications, and programs that have been vetted for data-privacy practices by districts around the state.

Tech officials in smaller districts with fewer resources can use the clearinghouse to see what platforms other districts have signed off on and share expectations on data privacy.

“Student-data privacy is his baby,” said Sherri Pankhurst, the assistant superintendent of the Cleveland public schools, a 1,500-student district near Tulsa. “I come from a smaller, rural district. The manpower is not there” to properly vet even payroll software, she said. “And so, for him to take that charge, to lead a state-level initiative to help schools” is very helpful.

Kim helped the district rebuild after a deadly tornado

Born in South Korea, Kim, 52, moved to the United States when he was about 6 for his father’s job at General Motors. The family lived in Michigan and Ohio before settling down in Moore, where Kim started as a 3rd grader and went on to graduate from high school.

Growing up, Kim’s parents used to joke that he always liked to “see who the newest baby in the neighborhood was,” Kim recalled. “I’ve always been interested in working with kids and just have a love for little ones.”

Teaching was a natural fit.

But right before Kim entered college, his father was laid off from GM. He still offered to take out loans to cover his son’s tuition, but Kim saw a different path. He joined the Air Force Reserve of the U.S. Air Force, then later transferred to the Oklahoma National Guard. He’s served in the military for 32 years and counting, beginning as a weapons loader for F-16 fighter jets. He’s also worked as a stinger operator, graphic artist, public affairs supervisor, and human resources adviser.

In 2013, while he was deployed in Afghanistan, Kim learned he had been selected as the district’s director of technology.

Just days after returning from a war zone, Kim found himself fighting a different kind of battle when a major tornado hit Moore in May. Seven elementary school students in the district were killed when a school building was destroyed. The storm demolished two schools and damaged other facilities, including the building that housed key district information, recalled Robert Romines, Moore’s current superintendent.

“All of our data from payroll, employee records, student data, anything that you can think of was within that building. That was a total loss,” said Romines, who was the personnel director at the time the storm hit but was already slated to step into the superintendent’s role. The district was able to recover some servers—without which Moore would not have been able to open its doors in time for the beginning of the next school year in August, Romines said.

There was no better way to underscore the importance of keeping data secure and backing it up, Romines said. “We needed to ensure that we had redundant servers that would continue working in the event of another catastrophic event here,” he said.

Kim coordinated the recovery and rebuilding of the district’s technology infrastructure with staff, internet providers, and vendors.

The experience taught him to always “overplan. Ask what ifs,” even if it seems a little nutty, Kim said. “I’ve swapped out the ‘aluminum foil hat’ to a ‘bigger-brimmed [aluminum foil] sombrero,” he joked.

Data security is paramount in the age of AI

These days, Kim and thousands of other education technology directors are walking a tricky tightrope as they work to make the most of a rapidly changing ed-tech landscape that is already revolutionizing learning—without endangering student data.

Thousands of applications and platforms can spark student engagement, make classroom organization easier, or personalize instruction for students. And school systems are embracing them: Districts around the country accessed an average of 2,591 distinct ed-tech tools during the 2022-23 school year, according to LearnPlatform.

At the same time, cyberattacks of all sorts are becoming increasingly common in K-12 schools. Eighty percent of K-12 schools had been targeted by ransomware, according to a survey of IT professionals conducted last year by Sophos, a cybersecurity firm. That’s a higher percentage than any other industry surveyed, including health care and financial services.

Cyberattacks can cost districts millions of dollars and days or even weeks of missed learning time. Hackers have applied for credit cards in children’s names and sent threatening messages to parents. And student-data privacy challenges will likely grow bigger as artificial intelligence—which relies on massive amounts of data—powers more and more ed-tech tools.

Most districts are on their own fighting this tidal wave of attacks, many of which come from shadowy overseas criminal gangs.

Under Kim’s leadership, Moore has been ahead of the curve in paying attention to the potential dangers for student information to fall into the wrong hands.

Back in 2018, even before the pandemic sparked a massive expansion in the use of education technology, Kim began requiring teachers who wanted to use an application not already approved by the district to submit it for vetting.

He asked vendors to fill out a survey explaining, among other things, what kind of data they collect about students and how they plan to use it. Will they promise to destroy Moore’s student data when the relationship with the district has ended? He and his team also work to get a sense of how each program or application will integrate with the district’s other technologies.

Kim has the curriculum team look separately at the app or software to make sure it is in line with how the district wants to approach a particular topic or subject. He’ll also point teachers to software or programs the district already has that may meet their needs as well as—if not better than—the program they are asking about.

Kim works to make sure teachers understand the reasons behind these procedures so that his requests for information about a platform they might want to use feel more meaningful than a tangle of red tape.

“He does a really good job of explaining the why versus just saying, ‘Oh, we’ve got to do this, because we’ve got to protect student-data privacy,’” said Laura Rousseau, the principal of South Ridge Junior High. “For us, as educators, the why is important. We expect our kids to understand the why when they’re learning things. And he does the same for us. He tells us the nitty-gritty behind policy changes and procedure changes.”

Kim is also willing to change course if his colleagues say they have a better way to do something or that a procedure isn’t working. Whenever a big policy or process change is in the offing, Kim will present it to principals first to get a sense of how to refine and message it to teachers and other district employees.

“Before [a policy] goes out to our thousands of employees and thousands of students, we’re able to digest it, and shoot holes in it, and troubleshoot,” Rousseau said. Kim asks how the district can enable people “in the school building to find success with whatever digital thing we’re needing to use,” Rousseau said.

Kim’s openness to others’ ideas and willingness to listen to their frustrations make it easier for Moore’s educators to hear, for example, that a long-beloved application or platform has updated its privacy policy and is no longer allowed in Moore. That’s something that often happens with STEM apps, Rousseau said.

While Kim will try to find a safer alternative to replace a platform that no longer meets Moore’s privacy standards, sometimes there simply isn’t one.

“We can get very mad at Jun sometimes,” Rousseau conceded. “But I think everybody knows that at the end of the day, he’s having to put himself in a position to protect us from any long-term consequences that can come from our data getting out into the world where we don’t want it.”

Complicating Kim’s communications challenge: The impact of all this work is largely invisible. It’s hard to celebrate the student data that weren’t stolen or the hack that was thwarted.

The closest thing to a public victory: Hackers did hit Moore last year in what Kim deems a “cyber event.” The systems Kim put in place helped keep sensitive student data out of their hands, Romines said. Within an hour, Moore’s tech was back up and running.

Though Kim has spent years refining and reworking Moore’s process, he “will be the first to tell you we’re nowhere near where we need to be” when it comes to data privacy, Romines said. “I don’t think we’ll ever be where we need to be because [technology means] a constant change. And he just does a really good job on thinking out toward the future and doing what needs to be done.”

Keeping students ‘digitally safe’

Kim sees securing student data as just another part of a school’s directive to protect its students.

“Schools are really great about trying to keep kids safe, right? Physically safe, emotionally safe,” Kim said. “Now, it’s just a matter of: Can we keep them digitally safe?”

That mission encompasses all children, not just the ones in Moore, he added. “Our whole focus has been our kids, whether they’re my kids in Moore or kids in Gotebo, Oklahoma, or Cleveland, Oklahoma, it doesn’t matter. They’re still kids, and we still want to protect kids’ information.”

That’s why in 2022, Kim played a leading role in developing Oklahoma’s Student Data Privacy Consortium, which gives participating districts access to resources for vetting software, plus lists of programs and platforms other districts have approved. At least 26 other states have similar organizations.

Data-privacy work has largely been a scattershot, district-by-district affair. Getting multiple districts to team up on the challenge can be a major boon for school systems with limited resources—and can even make life easier for vendors, experts say.

“If you build a sort of a collaborative, or cohort of people who are deeply, deeply engaged in the work, then you spread the knowledge at scale,” said Linnette Attai, the project director for CoSN’s Student Data Privacy Initiative and Trusted Learning Environment Program.

Kim demurs when others credit him as the driving force behind Oklahoma’s statewide privacy work, his colleagues say.

“He brags about maybe how far the state has come or the districts have come, but he never gives himself credit for any of it,” said Emily Monroe, an education technology specialist in Moore. “He goes above and beyond for so many districts across the state. He is really a mentor to a lot of other ed-tech directors and IT directors across the state. And when we’re at a conference with him, he’s like a rock star. Everyone knows him.”

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