Student Newsroom

Champaign teachers express express confusion, distaste over trick email


Champaign Unit 4 school district headquarters are located on Windsor Road in Champaign. Chris Evans

Champaign Unit 4 school district leaders tried in late February to test their employees’ ability to identify and avoid hacking emails, also known as phishing. 

Valarian Couch, director of information systems & network security at Unit 4, sent an email to teachers Feb. 24 with the subject line “Attention Needed.”.

The email instructed teachers to run a file by clicking on a link in the email.

Later that night, Couch sent a follow-up email to employees, revealing that the email sent earlier was a part of an “authorized internal phishing campaign.” 

He wrote: “In light of everything that is going on in the world with so many school systems falling victim to hacking, we would like to make sure this never happens to our district.”

He also said that district officials would be following up individually with teachers who did click the link.

Some teachers said they immediately knew that they were being tested and that the email was fake.

Todd Lash, a librarian at Southside Elementary in Champaign said that he knew upon looking at the email that it was an attempted phishing attack.

“Given the naming of the email, it just looked shady,” Lash said. “So I didn't bother opening it. And then when the follow up came along, again, suspicions were confirmed.”

Some teachers might feel like district leaders were trying to patronize teachers rather than effectively educate them about the dangers of phishing, Lash said.

“I think a lot of people probably feel like it's a gotcha,” he said. “I think what that probably does is it turns people away from opening emails by the tech department.”

Lash said he’s done his own research into email scams and has even taught kids at Southside about how to spot these types of emails. 

He said that he understood what the district was trying to do but that his research has told him that one-time tests without any sort of thought-out approach are ineffective.

The district, he said, should consider approaching issues through a different strategy that’s backed up by research.

“I would hope that they would go about things in a little more systematic way and a more research-based way, given that our district is supposed to be a research base district,” he said. 

Mike Slagor, a special education teacher at Central High School in Champaign, said he also identified the email as a fake early on.

He said he saw the email after first hearing about it from a co-worker and then from his wife, who is also a teacher. 

“And then a few seconds later, it hit my inbox,” Slagor said. “And it was a very well-crafted fake email. 

“Lo and behold, an hour, two or three later, we get the official word from Valerian about the gotcha moment. Or in my case, the caught-being-good moment when I did not click.”

Slagor said that among the clues that told him this email was fake was the domain name of the email’s sender. It ended in .com rather than the district’s standard .org, he said.

Slagor said he could see why some teachers might be offended or rubbed the wrong way by the email but that, for him, it wasn’t a very enlightening moment.

“Being 15 years in and having gone through a lot of computer tech stuff over those 15 years here, I kind of let it kind of roll off my back,” he said. 

The school district declined to answer questions about the incident.