Keeping Schools Safe During the Threat of Nuclear Attacks

With the continuing barrage of news coverage regarding the increasing threat of nuclear attacks around the world today, schools and planners should be considering their next steps. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists moved the hands of the so-called Doomsday Clock to 90 seconds to midnight, reflecting their belief that the world is closer to a global nuclear catastrophe than it has ever been. That decision was largely based on the continuing threats and actions of the war in Ukraine – two months before Russian President Vladimir Putin announced plans to station tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus. While the viability of the threat is currently under debate, the reality remains that the threat of Russia using nuclear weapons in its invasion of Ukraine heightens tensions and raises concerns over the future.

This is not the first time the United States has dealt with threats of nuclear attack from Russia. The 1950s first introduced the idea of school safety drills due to the threat of nuclear attack after Russia detonated its first nuclear weapon. President Harry Truman created the Federal Civil Defense Administration (FCDA) program in hopes of monitoring, educating, and preparing for the possibility of a nuclear attack on U.S. soil. By 1952, civil defense instruction existed or was in development in more than 95% of elementary and secondary schools around the country. School safety drills were a result of this program, and included an educational video (Duck and Cover) to demonstrate to students the steps to take should a nuclear attack occur while in school. To make the communication less frightful, Bert the Turtle teaches the students to “duck” (under tables, desks, and large pieces of furniture), and “cover” (protect the back of necks and faces) in the event of an explosion.

Adding Nuclear Threats to Existing All-Hazards Plans

Today, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) follows an all-hazards approach to emergency preparedness, as outlined in Homeland Security Presidential Directive-8. The directive defined all-hazards as terror attacks, disasters, and other emergencies and directed the creation of a national preparedness goal and improved methods to support state and local preparedness efforts. The preparedness goal outlined sought to “balance the potential threat and magnitude of terrorist attacks, major disasters, and other emergencies with the resources required to prevent, respond to, and recover from them.” The National Strategic Goal listed five different mission areas (Prevention, Protection, Mitigation, Response, and Recovery) along with the core capabilities needed for each of the areas. The three capabilities needed for all areas are Planning, Public Information and Warning, and Operational Coordination, areas where schools can engage with emergency planning operations.

According to the so-called Doomsday Clock, the world is closer to a global nuclear catastrophe than it has ever been, requiring new plans and assessments.

Current state laws require schools to perform certain drills (fire, earthquake, hurricane, active shooter) and plan for events, both natural and manmade. Both students and adults should be trained and know what to expect in an emergency during the school day, and those proficiencies demonstrated through drills. In 2013, FEMA published its Guide for Developing High-Quality School Emergency Operations Plans. This guide provides schools with information on the planning process, how to construct a plan, specific information on different hazards, and outline of the risk assessment process. Most districts determine the level of training (and type of training) based on likelihood of event occurrence in their geographical area. As such, nuclear attack preparation is rarely mentioned and even less frequently accounted for in school disaster planning.

While lower in priority and likelihood in most risk assessments, a nuclear or radiological attack has specific risk factors and considerations other all-hazard plans may not consider. In the 1950s, under the FCDA and Civil Defense initiatives, high schools were issued radiation detection equipment and efforts were made to include training in high school science courses. This level of investment and engagement is well beyond the scope of most schools today, particularly for a threat many districts do not currently address. It may be beneficial to include the possibility of radiation incidents in planning, as this can allay fears of uncertainty when news stories surface and allows the district/school to engage with partners to discuss response.

In 2018, a false missile alert in Hawaii resulted in 38 minutes of panic in Hawaii. The incident resulted from human error and a lack of adequate fail-safe measures but was a learning experience. After this event, the University of Hawaii sent out communication to the school, including instructional items such as “get inside, stay inside, stay tuned.” The communication was met with negativity, with many feeling it was encouraging unnecessary fear of the previous false alarm despite communicating important information that the state should consider. Current guidance is that, due to limited time to shelter in the event of a nuclear attack, there are no public shelters and no plans to create public shelters. As a result, the university was renewing their commitment to the safety of their students and updating/developing plans to identify safe spaces within the university.

Eight General Threat Assessments to Consider

During the threat assessment for the district/school and drafting response plans in an all-hazards framework, the following assessments may be useful in multiple scenarios.

Overall Assessment

Any emergency plans should be kept in both electronic and printed format. A dedicated person, usually an administrator in each school, should oversee emergency operations at the site and be responsible for activating emergency plans. Along these lines, it is important for each adult to understand that, in an emergency, everyone’s defined roles may not coincide with their current positions at the school. For example, boarding up windows and exits does not just apply to maintenance staff. Helping prepare food for a mass population may not be isolated to cafeteria staff. First aid does not just reside with the nurse, though it would make sense for the school nurse to oversee processes and be fully in the loop of first aid events where appropriate.

It is important to account for the possibility of electricity and internet outages. Consider laminating printed plans to protect against wear and tear, water damage, staining, etc. It is important to have a complete understanding of the number of people on the property (along with locations) at all times to maintain an accurate headcount and ensure safety and security. Additional considerations include keeping printed schedules of all students, faculty, and administrators in a safe place if someone needs to be located (see the section below on healthcare assessment).

Location Assessment

Understanding the layout of the school is critical:

  • Are students located in portables?
  • What is the distance between buildings?
  • Is there more than one safe building (a building with concrete or brick walls or a basement) on the property?
  • What if students are in outdoor locations, such as recess, physical education, or sports team practice?

There should be defined plans related to communication and safely moving students inside in a timely manner where applicable. If communication has been received with enough time to move students, students should be moved from portables into larger building structures for various reasons. Access to bathrooms, food, medication, and first aid supplies are the most critical items. If there are multiple safe locations for students, there should be defined maps showing which building(s) students should move to, along with drills/exercises practicing this movement.

Children with additional needs should also be considered. As a standard, consider setting up classrooms within a safe structure from the beginning. Determine and write into the plan if populations in individual classrooms within a primary structure will be expected to move toward the center of the building or into larger areas (cafeteria, gym, etc.). Having students in one central place can be beneficial in terms of preparing an accurate roster of people located within the structure and managing safety and security concerns, which will be addressed later. Staffing for this process should be addressed in the preparedness plan to ensure adequate coverage and student-teacher ratios.

Healthcare Assessment

The school nurse or health aide will play a critical role in this event:

  • Where is the nurse located within the school?
  • Are there printed (not just electronic) plans of student medications, dosages, and frequency of administration?
  • Are the medications being physically carried by the student or left with the nurse?
  • If the student carries their own medication, is there a plan in place if the student leaves their medication in a different location in the school?
  • If a student has required medication needs, does the nurse know how to locate the child if not in a central location?
  • Can the student be reached without having to go outside?
  • Does the school have an adequate first aid kit, including an automated external defibrillator (AED), to handle both individual small incidents and mass casualty events?
  • Are there any children or adults with mobility issues that will need to be taken into consideration?

In addition to the students, it is critical to understand the adults within the school structure and any health concerns or needs they require. This does not just apply to long-term issues. Understanding any population on crutches, in a temporary wheelchair, etc. can be essential in planning and executing a plan during an event. During the event itself, an accurate accounting of any ongoing medical needs should be documented for tracking purposes.


Safety and Security Assessment

As with securing any structure, consideration for having adequate supplies in the event of an extended lockdown are necessary. Consider ensuring adequate supplies of duct tape and heavy coverings for any broken windows, exterior entrances, and exits. Additional considerations include securing an adequate supply of batteries and flashlights for an overnight stay with a large population. Understanding that outside communication is critical, battery or hand-powered radios, such as National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), are important to have on hand. Determine if the school has a backup generator that can support a large space for an extended period of time.

Communication Assessment

Communication considerations include both internal and external. As previously noted, NOAA radios are encouraged in order to receive outside communication, such as when it is safe to go outside or any other instructions given by local and federal governments. Additional external communication includes instructions for communicating individuals’ needs for medical attention at the location. This ties into the item above in the healthcare assessment section, ensuring that an accurate record is kept for this scenario. Alternate forms of communication for adults, such as walkie-talkies, can provide real-time information throughout the structure. If walkie-talkies are not routinely used at the school, understanding the correct channel and frequency to use is important:

  • Where are walkie-talkies located?
  • Do they need to be charged?
  • Who is responsible for ensuring these items are charged and ready for use at any given time?
  • If everyone is not located in a central place, how should communication occur and at what frequency?

Consideration for content and communication in front of students should be considered in order not to cause unnecessary panic and concern. Additional items to consider include the overhead speaker system Determine whether this system can function on a backup generator if needed. If so, it can continue to provide communication as needed to everyone in the school.

Mental Health Assessment

National Association of School Psychologists states that student learning is successful in part because students perceive their school as a safe place. Adults should reassure children and clearly communicate in a manner that does not cause additional stress. Understand that different age groups require different communication styles during an emergency event. published guidelines for talking with children about school safety. During a lockdown, consider activities that will help relax students, such as games, singing, and other arts-related activities that they normally would encounter during the school day. Students with disabilities may have heightened levels of stress. Crisis intervention training for all special needs teachers and additional staff can be considered to help work through this item.

The following assessments are more specific to radiological incidents.

Decontamination Assessment

Individuals outside or exposed during the blast need to be decontaminated before entering the safe areas and confined spaces with those sheltered. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that people wash themselves before assisting any small children or infants to minimize cross-contamination. For self-decontamination, the CDC recommends three steps: remove the outer layer of clothing, wash off the body, and put on clean clothes. Taking off the outer layer of clothing can reduce contaminants by 90%, but it is important to remove clothing and dispose of it carefully to not spread the contamination. Next, wash the body with clean water. While a shower is preferable, a sink or wet cloth can be used to scrub any exposed skin (face, hands, etc…) not previously covered. The last step is to put on fresh clothing and then assist others with their decontamination process. To keep the indoor spaces as clean as possible, the CDC also recommends turning off fans, air conditioners, and forced-air heating units that bring in air from the outside and closing and locking all windows and doors.

Sustenance Assessment

After the explosion, FEMA recommends staying indoors for a minimum of 24 hours. If students, faculty, and administrators are sheltering in place, it is important to make sure there is adequate food and water storage to accommodate the population during an event. Most schools have enough food supplies as a standard if they have a cafeteria that prepares food on-site. Schools that do not have an on-site cafeteria where food is prepared will need to consider this item in their emergency plan. Water supplies should be added for all schools as a standard. Each person needs at least one gallon of water per day. The CDC suggests foods with long shelf lives (e.g., canned, dried, or packaged food products), with a three-day supply per person. Consider populations with allergies to ensure adequate supplies and separation of food to prevent unnecessary medical emergencies.

Creating an All-Hazard Plan

Completing these assessments and including the results in the all-hazards plan requires little investment beyond time and coordination with relevant stakeholders. Schools already have most of these assessments in place, or something similar based on standard operating procedures and policies. Addressing these areas and incorporating lower likelihood events, such as radiological attacks, terror or violence in the area, or rare extreme weather events, provide leaders with an opportunity to evaluate their posture and preparedness in novel ways. School leaders can also reassure parents and students that plans are in place for both all-hazard incidents and rare events that have the potential to cause severe damage, death, and devastation.

As the March 2023 school shooting in Nashville showed, while not all situations or attacks are preventable, planning, preparation, and coordination can go a long way in mitigating damage and saving what can be saved. The threats of use of nuclear weapons by Russia in their rhetoric around the invasion of Ukraine and the potential for a radiological attack or incident highlight an overlooked area in many preparedness plans. With so many needs to address in schools and limited resources, the all-hazards approach outlined can provide schools the largest return on investment. As threats emerge or rise in importance, like radiological hazards in recent months, schools can identify specific planning measures and needs and fold those into existing plans. This approach can reassure staff, students, and parents that hazards are accounted for, and a plan is in place while minimizing the need to invest heavily or duplicate efforts.

Tanya Scherr
Tanya M. Scherr

Tanya Scherr holds a Ph.D. in Public Policy and Administration with a Healthcare and Emergency Preparedness focus. She is an associate professor in Healthcare Administration for the University of Arizona – Global Campus and has over 28 years’ healthcare experience. Along with being a Certified Fraud Examiner since 2011, she is also a former firefighter-EMT, previously licensed in several states, as well as holding national certification. Dr. Scherr has held several executive and board of director positions for community non-profits that focus on women’s equality, domestic violence, and sexual assault.

Daniel Scherr
Daniel Scherr

Daniel Scherr holds a Ph.D. in Public Policy Administration with a terrorism, mediation, and peace focus. He is an assistant professor in Criminal Justice at the University of Tennessee Southern and program coordinator for the Cybersecurity Program. In addition, he is a Certified Fraud Examiner and Army veteran with two decades of experience in homeland security and operation.



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