A teen, a teacher, a gun: 2000 school shooting staggered Palm Beach County

A teen, a teacher, a gun: 2000 school shooting staggered Palm Beach County

In two years, he'll be the age Barry Grunow was when Brazill shot him in the face in the doorway of his Lake Worth Middle School classroom near the end of the last day of school.

It is the only time a teacher ever has been killed inside a Palm Beach County school.

“We all miss him,” Grunow’s brother Kurt said May 5. “A lot. To this day.”

Palm Beach County hasn’t forgotten Barry Grunow in the 20 years since his death. The gymnasium at Lake Worth Middle has been named for Grunow, a onetime basketball standout. A scholarship fund has distributed a total of nearly $250,000 to hundreds of students in his name.

His son and daughter, now adults, grew up in the area without him. His widow, known for being private, took time over the years to lecture students as a "safe school ambassador."

"The loved ones we grieve for are still around," Pam Grunow said at the 2001 dedication of a butterfly garden at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, Barry’s alma mater. He loved butterflies.

“We can make good out of bad,” she said, “if we want to."

Brazill, one of the youngest people charged with murder in Palm Beach County, is set to get out of state prison in eight years, when he’s 41.

He agreed to a Palm Beach Post interview this month but, because of the coronavirus lockdown, was able only to answer questions by email.

“Twenty years ago, I was a 13-year-old kid recognized by law as being too immature and too irresponsible to drive a car, get married, join the military, sign a contract, see a rated ’R’ movie, or vote,” Brazill wrote from prison. “Today, I am a 33-year-old man, a positive influence among my peers, and a leader within the prison community.”

Pam Grunow, who still lives in Palm Beach County, declined an interview and asked for privacy for her and children, Sam and Lee-Anne, now in their 20s.

She did say in an email about the Barry Grunow Scholarship, "We are happy knowing that so many young people are benefiting,“ adding, ”this allows Barry’s goals and values to continue through others."

’Any minute a killer could come in'

Barry Grunow was a Detroit-area native whose father died when he was young. He grew up in the working-class Cabana Colony neighborhood near Palm Beach Gardens. At 6-foot-3, with a decent jump shot, he'd earned all-conference basketball honors at Jupiter High.

While he was a freshman at Florida Atlantic University, The Post interviewed him for a 1986 Labor Day weekend story about people's worst jobs. He'd spent two weeks over the summer as a convenience-store clerk before he'd quit.

"You're there for eight hours," he said, "and any minute a killer could come in and gun me between the eyes."

He finished at FAU In 1987 and was hired to teach English at Loggers' Run Middle School west of Boca Raton. He already had been dating Pamela Hlawka, a former special-education teacher, for two years, and the two married in 1991. They would have two children and live in a home on North O Street in Lake Worth. It had a basketball net.

In 1995, Barry transferred from the highly rated Loggers' Run to the struggling Lake Worth Middle. It was more challenging, but he was up to it. And it was just 3 miles from the Grunow home.

One of the kids in his Language Arts class was Nate Brazill.

’I'll be all over the news'

Grunow had encouraged Brazill when others mocked his zeal for study, which earned him A’s and B’s. He dreamed of becoming a U.S. Secret Service agent.

Brazill lived a little closer to the school than Grunow, about 2½ miles, in an apartment with his mother, Polly Ann Powell, a 2-year-old sister and Powell’s husband. Powell was an assistant food service director at a retirement home. Nathaniel's father lived in Daytona Beach and sent the family $50 a week.

On the morning of May 26, Polly already was at work when Nathaniel got to the bus stop at 8:30 a.m. He clutched a small bouquet of orange and white blossoms, with a silver balloon, which he would give to a girl he liked just before classes started at 9:15 a.m. Hidden in his backpack: water balloons. It was, after all, the last day of school.

After attending Grunow's class and having lunch, Brazill went to band, where he played tuba. After class, he slipped into a restroom and filled water balloons. About a dozen students then sparked a fight. They scattered when a counselor ran up. All, that is, but a 13-year-old girl and Nate Brazill.

Busted, they were sent home.

The girl later would say that at the school gate, Brazill told her he planned to come back and shoot the counselor, saying, "Just watch. I'll be all over the news."

The previous weekend, he'd visited the Boynton Beach home of a man he considered an unofficial grandfather. The man kept a .25-caliber Raven semiautomatic handgun in a tin box in a drawer, and loose bullets in a separate drawer. Nate had pilfered both.

At his apartment, Brazill retrieved his bicycle, put the gun in his pocket and headed back to school. A campus police officer saw him racing down a fire lane but couldn't catch up.

Inside, Brazill went looking for the girl to whom he'd given the flowers, as well as her friend. At this time of day, 3:25 p.m., they'd be in Room 301, Barry Grunow's class.

Security cameras — no audio — capture Grunow meeting Brazill at the door and stepping out into the hallway. Grunow likely did not know he'd been sent home for the day and the rest of the school year.

He likely had asked Brazill for a hall pass. Then he told Brazill he couldn't see the girls.

An hour later, Brazill would tell investigators that Grunow "was laughing. And that made me mad."

Brazill pulled out the gun.

"I was like shaking a lot," he'd say later. "I didn't know what was going to happen if I would have dropped it. And so it just all went from there."

Students inside heard Grunow say, "Stop pointing that gun at me, Nate."

Marc Ariot, a 14-year-old who was in the hall, would say later, "I heard a big pop."

Grunow dropped in front of a row of lockers. All Brazill could do was curse.

’I shot somebody'

“Everybody came running out of class. They were shouting, 'He shot Mr. Grunow,’ ” Ariot would say. "I saw him laying there in a pool of blood. . . . I knew there was nothing I could do for him."

John James, a math teacher who'd taught Brazill earlier in the year, stepped out into the hallway. Brazill waved the gun. He said, "Don't bother me, Mr. James!"

James threw up his palms and backed into his classroom.

Outside, Brazill found his bike gone. He raced across campus, jumped a fence and was running down the street when a police car pulled up. He stopped and walked over. He told the officer, "I shot somebody."

Polly Ann Powell got home at 3:30 and was surprised to find her son not there. One-half hour later, her sister called. Nathaniel had been arrested.

Twenty minutes later, students at Lake Worth Middle were sent home. Barry Grunow already was dead.

Inside his now-empty classroom, notebooks, purses, and homework had been left behind as frantic students had fled. On Grunow's desk were a paperweight, a half-finished bag of jelly beans and a worn brown briefcase. On the wall, a sign said, "Welcome to Mr. Grunow's Class."

Ben Marlin, then the Palm Beach County schools superintendent, drove to the Grunow home. He said later that Pam kept asking "Why? Why?"

In police video from hours after the shooting, Nathaniel Brazill asked detectives how Grunow was doing. They told him his teacher had died. Brazill broke down and sobbed.

Later, Polly Powell came into the interrogation room and Brazill began to weep and shake. His mother wiped the tears from her boy's face.

"If I taught you anything," she said, "didn't I teach you to think first?"

Barry Grunow's memorial service would draw about 1,600 people to Good Shepherd United Methodist Church on Military Trail near West Palm Beach.

Many of them were seventh-graders, still at an age where they shouldn't be expected to tackle a subject as profound as violent death, especially one at their school. But it had been just a year since the mass shooting at Colorado's Columbine High.

"There's just been too many of these," Bob Chase, the president of the National Education Association, told Grunow's mourners.

Six days after the shooting, a sobbing Polly Powell met with reporters at the Palm Beach County Public Defender's Office. She said, “I just ask myself, 'Is it something that I missed?’ ”

Pulled back the slide

How does a 13-year-old do such a thing?

"Because he was 13. That's what nobody seems to accept," Robert Udell, who defended Brazill in court, recalled April 28 from Jensen Beach in Martin County.

He called Brazill "one of the finest young men I ever met in 30 years of practice." But, he said, his client "did a very stupid thing."

Udell sticks to the argument that Brazill brought the gun to school just to intimidate people, and killed Grunow by accident.

Then-Palm Beach County State Attorney Barry Krischer had opted to charge the 13-year-old as an adult.

In the year before he went to trial, Nathaniel Brazill had grown 4 inches and bulked up, morphing from a baby-faced kid to a young man. At trial, prosecutors said he showed little remorse. They said he had admitted pulling back the slide on the gun, which they argued made this no accident.

A conviction of first-degree, premeditated murder meant a life sentence. Manslaughter, the accidental result of recklessly pointing a gun, had a maximum of 15 years. The jury convicted Brazill of second-degree murder. He was sentenced to 28 years.

Pam Grunow sued the pawn shop that sold the pistol, as well as Brazill's "grandfather" and the Palm Beach County School Board. Cases were settled out of court for more than $1 million.

She also sued the Broward County company that made the gun and won a $1.2 million judgment. An appeals court threw it out, saying the gun was anything but defective.

The same year Polly Powell’s son killed his teacher, she learned she had breast cancer. In 2003, she would go, with other parents of children who’d committed murder, to the Vatican to try to change U.S. attitudes about prosecuting teenagers as adults.

Cancer took her life in 2008. She was 43.

"It compounded my pain,“ Brazill said this month in an email to The Post, ”that I was not permitted to bury her which was my duty as her only son and eldest child.“

’No intent to harm Mr. Grunow’

In prison, Brazill has earned his GED and law-clerk and paralegal certifications. He hopes to earn a law degree. He’s filed seven lawsuits and 500 administrative complaints against the prison system. One, filed in July 2011 alleging he was punished for retaliation, was settled.

Prison records show 15 disciplinary actions, most for minor offenses such as lying or disrespect, or violations of telephone or mail privileges, although he was cited for fighting in 2001, for having a weapon in 2005 and for assault in 2015. He admits only to the fighting charge and says the others were fabricated.

Over the years, Brazill has sought clemency and early release without success.

In 2010, on the 10th anniversary of Barry Grunow's death, he sat down with a Post reporter at a state prison in Okeechobee County.

"That wasn't clear thinking. I personally don't know what to call it. Stupidity,“ he said. ”I had no intent to harm Mr. Grunow.“.

He said he was not the person he had been that day. He said, "I am a good person and I will do good."

Brazill now is at a minimum-security work camp about 60 miles northwest of Tallahassee.

"I refuse to allow what I did, what I didn't do, or what I should have did, affect what I'm about to do,“ he said in mid-May. ”I can't focus on future years if I'm stuck on past years.”

He said he already has petitioned State Sen. Bobby Powell, D-Riviera Beach, to let him attend the funeral of his now 94-year-old maternal grandmother when she dies.

“I have told her,” Brazill said of his grandmother, “that she has to live to be 115 so that she can see me become the first lawyer in our family.”

Powell said May 18 he’s been “amazed” by Brazill’s attitude, and while he acknowledged the tragedy of Grunow’s death, he said, “No one is the worst thing that they have ever done.”

’Passed on this beautiful thing’

Soon after the shooting, the Barry Grunow Memorial Scholarship was created, seeded by leftover campaign money from then-School Board member Jody Gleason and County Commissioner Warren Newell.

For five years, it drew support from a 3-on-3 basketball tournament at Grunow's Jupiter High, run by his lifelong friend Garth Rosenkrance and others.

"We just thought it would be a great way to honor him,“ he said.

In 2011, MaryAnne Hedrick, who taught physical education at Lake Worth Middle, started a memorial golf tournament. It averaged $15,000 a year. Hedrick, paralyzed in a 1997 car crash, also became an advocate for accessibility. She died last year at just 62, leaving the golf event without an organizer.

"We know that she's not replaceable," financial adviser Michael Woods, who helps run the scholarship fund, said April 29. "But we'd like to see somebody come in and continue the legacy."

In two decades, the fund has distributed $233,250 to 143 public, private and home-schooled students.

Lorraine C. Przybylski of Santaluces High was a first-year recipient. She has taught now for 15 years and is at Rolling Green Elementary in Boynton Beach.

"I'm thankful every day that this is what we do," Lorraine — now Lorraine Sotelo — said May 5. 'Even though his life ended, he passed on this beautiful thing that continues to give back."

One day in April of this year, Garth Rosenkrance's mother texted him a photo she had found in an old album. She was on the sidelines of a flag football game.

Beside her: a young Barry Grunow.