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Cloquet school district hit by second ransomware attack

When Cloquet school officials realized staff were unable to access certain files the morning of Aug. 3, there may have been a certain amount of negative "been there, done that" feeling involved.

For the second time in three years, the school district is the target of a ransomware attack — a particularly virulent computer malware that spreads from computer to computer, locking up access to network servers and turning documents into gibberish before offering "help" in the form of a request for payment to provide a "key" to unlock the files.

Last time, in March 2016, the district had to cancel school for a day to allow technology staff time to recover from the malware, which infected some of the district's servers and many of its more than 600 computers.

This time, it happened over summer vacation, and the attack was not as devastating. According to the staff report from Cloquet School District Technology Director T.J. Smith, the virus encrypted files on all servers except one, including network shared drives. However, there is no indication that any information was "stolen," just that it had been encrypted, so users were unable to open the files.

Smith explained to Cloquet School Board members Monday, Aug. 13, that the district had two options, not including paying the ransom demand: either try to recover the data, which may not be successful and could be a waste of time and money, or figure out how to recreate the data and rebuild the affected servers.

He advocated the second option, noting that the lost data was not "mission critical" and that insurance will pay to return the servers to their previous state.

Board members voted unanimously for the second option of re-creating information and rebuilding the servers; they also voted to hire a company to do a "forensic" investigation to try and determine how the virus got in.

The total cost to the school district for insurance deductibles, estimated at $15,000, will be covered by money already in the technology budget.

Superintendent Michael Cary said the district determined that paying a ransom "is not in the best interest of our schools and the community we serve."

Board Chairman Ted Lammi said he believes such payments to hackers should be illegal.

"Some institutions have paid big bucks and that's why these guys do it," Lammi said.

Board member Duane Buytaert, who works in technology for Carlton County, said it can also be a matter of making sure users know how to detect such attacks.

"We all get those wacky emails," he said.

Staff training should be a priority, board members agreed.

On the positive side, Smith said technology staff were able to recover quite a bit of data already, and staff can recreate the data that was lost.

The recovery process should not affect the start of school Sept. 5.

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Coach Nowak memorialized with podium donation

Former assistant Cloquet ski coach Brian Johnson presented a handmade podium to Cloquet High School during the School Board meeting Monday, Aug. 13.

Flanked by former ski jumpers and skiers Rick and Denny Nelson and Brent Smith, along with recently retired Nordic coach Glen Sorenson, Johnson donated the podium in memory of legendary Cloquet ski jumping coach Joe Nowak, who passed away two years ago.

By the end of his coaching career here, Nowak and his fellow coaches had taken the Cloquet High School boys ski teams to 14 state championships — 13 of those in a 15-year period.

He was also responsible for persuading the Northwest Paper Co. in 1961 to donate the 40 acres of land that now houses Pine Valley park, with its ski jumps and recreational trails, as well as the two hockey shelters next-door.

Johnson was assistant coach to Nowak 50 years ago during part of that championship run. In addition to the Lumberjacks logo on the front of the podium, he also attached a Cloquet Ski Club medal to the side, next to the plaque remembering Nowak.

Afterward, Joe's oldest brother, Gerald "Gerry" Nowak, told how Joe had made his final "jump."

"A few hours before his heart stopped, I was sitting next to his bed and holding his hand, and I told him he was a great jumper, with his longest jump at 300 feet," Gerry told the Pine Journal. "I told him: 'Don't be afraid to go, you're about to make the great leap into heaven.' He was unconscious, but he squeezed my hand.

"Then I told him: 'Joe, you made a perfect landing,' and his hand went limp. He skied off into heaven."

Glen Sorenson, who taught with Johnson in Proctor and coached the Lumberjacks Nordic ski team for the past five years, had high praise for the ski program in Cloquet, from the kids program on the weekends through the high school teams.

"You should be appreciative of what you've got there," he said. "The parental support and the community, it's really a special and unique deal in this entire state. This is the state of skiing, it's not just the state of hockey. I think it's really cool that you're honoring Joe."

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