May 07, 2001 12:00 PM

Polly Powell was at work at a Lake Worth, Fla., retirement home last May 26 when an aide told her she had a phone call. It was a school counselor, telling her that her son Nathaniel Brazill, then a 13-year-old seventh grader, had been caught throwing water balloons and was going to be suspended. Did she want to come pick him up? Hoping to teach Nate a lesson, she told the counselor to have him walk home and face her later. “I wish,” Powell, 37, says now, “I would have just left work and got him.”

But neither Powell nor anyone else could have imagined that before the day was out, Nathaniel would take the life of his favorite teacher. Overall, he was a good student. He played tuba in the school band, had a perfect attendance record with no serious discipline problems and hoped one day to join the Secret Service so he could protect a President. “Nate was a great kid,” says Bob Hatcher, Lake Worth Middle School’s principal, “right up to the time the gun went off.”

Nate admitted later to police that he had gone home, picked up a handgun he had found earlier in a cookie tin in a dresser in his godfather’s house, ridden his bike back to school and tried to visit a girl he had a crush on. When Barry Grunow, 35, Nate’s language-arts teacher, confronted him at the door of his classroom just five minutes before school was dismissed, Nate pulled out the gun, shot Grunow and fled as the teacher lay dying. Though his trial for first-degree murder—scheduled to begin April 25 in West Palm Beach—could put him in an adult prison for life, it is unlikely to solve the mystery at the heart of the shooting. “He knows he did it, he knows he’s responsible,” says Nate’s attorney Robert Udell, who insists it was an accident. “But he can’t give a reason why.”

That day had started like any other for Grunow, a talented, popular teacher who had been at Lake Worth since 1993. He pulled on his jeans and a T-shirt, left his wife, Pam, then 36, with their children, Sam, 5, and Lee-Anne, 6½ months, and headed for work. Since it was the last day of the school year, he planned to entertain his students with videos, including, ironically, a 1997 TV movie called Killing Mr. Griffin, about a group of students whose English teacher mysteriously dies.

Across town, Nate Brazill woke up early in the two-bedroom apartment he shared with his mother, her husband, truck driver Marshall Powell, 37 (she had never married Nate’s father, Nathaniel Sr., 43, a Daytona Beach letter carrier), and Nate’s half-sister Ebony, then 18 months. As usual, Polly, who had left early for work, phoned Nate at 6:30. “He said, ‘Mom, I’m up, I’m getting dressed,’ ” she recalls. He took a few extra items on the bus with him that day: a card and flowers for his favorite girl, Dinora Rosales, 13, and a camera to take year-end photos.

In the pictures he took, Nate and his friends and teachers—including Grunow—are shown mugging for the camera. But after lunch, guidance counselor Kevin Hinds spotted Nate and a friend throwing water balloons, summoned them to his office and told them the punishment: a one-day suspension, starting immediately, that Nate apparently believed would extend into the following school year. “I was like really mad,” Nate told police, ” because I was never under suspension.”

Nate caught a ride partway home with a pizza deliveryman he knew. Once at the house, he let himself in and gathered up the cheap 25-cal. Raven handgun he told police he had taken six days before from his godfather, Elmore McCray, 76. Then he got on his bike and returned to school.

He headed straight for Dinora’s classroom—room 301—where he found Grunow in the doorway. “He pushed me away and told me to go to class,” Nate told police. “He had a smile on his face and he was laughing and that made me mad.” Then Nate pulled out the gun. “Put that thing away,” he remembers the teacher saying. A surveillance camera recorded Nate as he raised the gun and fired a single shot, hitting Grunow between the eyes. As students screamed, Nate ran down the hall, pausing to wave the gun at another teacher, and then fled.

Minutes later, Nate flagged down a police cruiser driven by officer Mike Mahoney, whom he knew from his neighborhood, fell to his knees in the street and confessed. “He asked me, ‘Why would you do such a stupid thing?’ ” Nate told police. “I told him, ‘I don’t know.’ ”

In fact, Grunow had been friendly with Nate, a better-than-average student who took advanced math and language classes and had been chosen to be a peer counselor for the coming school year. Still, there had been signs of trouble. Earlier in the week, police say, he had bragged to friends about having a gun and creating a “hit list.” They all dismissed it as one of his jokes.

Did Nate know what he was doing? Psychologists say his behavior reflects the typical confusion of early adolescence. “It’s consistent with the way 13-year-olds think when they’re not thinking,” says David Bjorklund, professor of psychology at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton. “Their mind goes into overdrive and the decisions they make reflect that they are not looking at future consequences.”

But prosecutor Barry Krischer, who decided within 24 hours of the shooting to try Brazill as an adult, insists that Brazill be held accountable for his actions. “I have intent, and I have a dead teacher,” Krischer told the Miami Herald. “The tragedy is what happened to Barry Grunow, not what happens to Brazill.”

Certainly Grunow is missed at the school, where he earned a reputation as a devoted, accessible teacher who wore ties only on test days and would occasionally don a toga to teach Greek mythology. “He created an atmosphere where kids wanted to learn,” says principal Hatcher. A Michigan native and the youngest of five children, Grunow had moved with his family to Florida as a boy and in 1991 married Pam, also a teacher, who stopped working after their son was born in 1994.

Though Pam is avoiding the media until the trial ends, she did tell Rolling Stone last fall that she hopes Nate is punished severely. “He chose evil,” she said. “I hope he knows that and has to live with it every day for the rest of his life.”

The most lasting memorial to her husband may be the Barry Grunow Act, soon to be signed by Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. It puts teachers in the same risk category as police officers and firefighters, stipulating that families of teachers killed while on duty be awarded $75,000 plus $1,000 for funeral costs.

Though Nate Brazill, confined since the shooting to the Palm Beach County Jail, understands there is nothing he can do to help the Grunows now, he says he is aware he made a terrible mistake and believes he should be punished, though he hopes to be released in 10 years. “Then when I get out,” he says, “I’ll still be able to start my life over again.” Meanwhile, his mother offers Pam Grunow her deepest regrets but hopes somehow to salvage her son. “I’m sorry it happened. I wouldn’t wish it on anybody,” says Powell. “But I can’t turn my back on him, and I won’t.”

Thomas Fields-Meyer

Lori Rozsa in Lake Worth

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