Livingston teacher, accused of keeping explosives in classroom, sentenced to 4 years probation

A plea agreement was reached in the seven-month case of a Livingston High School chemistry teacher, Japhia Smith Huhndorf, who was placed on four years of felony probation Friday at Merced County Superior Court.

The deal led to tears and expressions of grief, regret and anger from victims and parents in the case.

Judge Brian McCabe presided as Huhndorf, 34, pleaded no contest to felony child abuse. Five felony counts were dropped. Besides probation, she was ordered not to contact and stay at least 100 yards away from one of the minors in the case.

Huhndorf also lost her teaching credential. Whether she would be able to attain one in the future would be up to the state, according to McCabe.

Huhndorf faces no jail time; she spent six months in custody earlier this year.

Huhndorf was arrested in late May after Livingston police reported finding a vial containing 4 milliliters of nitroglycerin in her chemistry lab. She was accused of storing explosive and dangerous chemicals in her classroom. That happened after she had been arrested on suspicion of helping three students inhale chloroform.

According to investigators, Huhndorf told police she had allowed Advanced Placement chemistry students to choose subjects for a class project, and one chose to focus on explosives. She found directions for making nitroglycerin on the Internet and made a small amount for the student's experiment, authorities said.

McCabe called the case "a lapse in judgment" by Huhndorf.

He told the students, who were in the courtroom, that whether they felt they were victims was "irrelevant. The laws are put in place to protect minors why? Because minors aren't of the capacity to know whether or not they're protected. I think justice was served."

He described the incident as a learning experience that probably "everybody wishes you never had."

Three students addressed the court with statements that ranged from regret over what happened to thanking Huhndorf for being a teacher who inspired and motivated them.

Two parents and three students made statements to the court.

A parent of one of the victims, weeping as she spoke, told the judge that Huhndorf inspired her son "to (learn) science."

"I know you care about him and never intended to hurt him," she said. "And teachers teach, and from this experience I think my son has learned good people (can) have bad judgment."

She said while she thought her son wasn't harmed, "it's another learning experience for him." She said she hoped that he had learned to be more cautious in making decisions.

Huhndorf's attorney, Paul Fromson, said he had two grown sons and would have been honored to have them in Huhndorf's class. He said she was a "gifted and talented person."

"Of course, she accepts responsibility but never (had) an intention to harm anybody," he said.

He said the three boys accept responsibility and that Huhndorf wasn't present during the chloroform incident.

"They did a lot of it on their own," Fromson said. "It is true a lapse in judgment brought us here today. But as you listen to these three fine young men, I want to publicly acknowledge all three families who invited us into their homes and warmly received us in spite of all that had happened."

The students benefited from Huhndorf, Fromson told the judge, calling her "a person of true character."

One student said that before he met Huhndorf, he had lost his faith in humanity and his love for science.

"She made me love humanity," he said, his voice breaking. "Her unwavering joy made me realize the beauty of life."

What happened, he said, caused him to feel "destroyed."

"I have lost my faith in the systems and the world as a whole."

A second student, also choking up, felt he was at fault "partly because of the decisions I made. I can only say Ms. Huhndorf was one of the greatest teachers I ever had. I could talk to her about anything."

A second parent said she couldn't understand "what (Huhndorf) was thinking when she let this happen in her classroom. You just don't understand how much pain you have caused my family for you to get so close to my son. Today, I don't understand what made you allow the kids to do this in your classroom. You broke the trust I feel I have with a lot of the teachers my kids have today."

As the students and parents spoke, Huhndorf cried.

Deputy District Attorney Monika Saini, who was prosecuting the case, said it was a difficult one. "The kids felt responsible, the parents felt betrayed," Saini said. "I think at the end of the day, it was a proper result."

Fromson said he was concerned that because of the affection expressed by all three students that one of them might try to contact Huhndorf, which could jeopardize her plea agreement. McCabe agreed and cautioned the students to have no contact with Huhndorf for the full length of her probation.

Huhndorf's ankle monitor was removed Friday on Fromson's request and approved by the judge.

Reporter Ameera Butt can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or abutt@mercedsunstar.com.