'Connectedness' as a community and school goal | March 11, 2011 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - March 11, 2011

'Connectedness' as a community and school goal

by Rev. Matthew McDermott

Eighteen months ago, Advocates for Youth emerged as an interfaith group focused on youth social and emotional well-being in our community. Alongside Peninsula Interfaith Action and including 11 congregations representing over 16,000 people, Advocates for Youth formed partly in response to Palo Alto's tragic teen suicides but mostly in response to a perceived need in our community for more community-building and connectedness.

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Posted by JLS Parent
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 11, 2011 at 1:25 pm

A laudable and worthy goal with which the whole community should be involved. The schools do offer a lot, but without a focus on reaching every kid. I'm sure with some minor tweeks, yet probably a fair amount of effort this is achievable.

Congratulations on your efforts and thanks for stepping forward and doing something as opposed to just talking about it.

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Posted by EcoMama
a resident of Community Center
on Mar 11, 2011 at 1:37 pm

Bravo! Finally, here's a group who's taking action in partnership with the schools rather than finger-pointing and just expecting the district to "do something." I attended their public meetings last year and this year and found them to be valuable sources of information for parents in the district as well as for the community at large. Yes, our schools could do more in this arena and, like Rev. McDermott says, they need to expand and track successful programs so that every kid is reached -- but they're trying, under the watchful eye of positive-minded groups like this one. It's refreshing to read this letter with its positive spin as opposed to the Dauber's pieces rife with negativity. Let's all get on the bandwagon of supporting our schools, Project Safety Net, this Advocacy group, and all of those who are trying to help make better learning environments for our kids. This is how change will happen for the better.

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Posted by Athiest and Proud
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Mar 11, 2011 at 1:54 pm

This is religion-affiliated and should not be part of the schools. Great time to reach out to kids - when they are down - that's the MO of religions. We need something else.

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Posted by Agnostic and humble
a resident of South of Midtown
on Mar 11, 2011 at 2:07 pm

Caring about the emotional well-being of children is not religious--this should be a core community value. I like the focus on connecting these kids--they need this kind of support in such a high-pressure school district. Bravo I say to the Advocates for Youth. I don't dislike you or your message just because you are part of a church. That would be discrimination for no good reason.

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Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 11, 2011 at 2:39 pm

I applaud what this group is doing, thank you to all concerned.

I would like to make a suggestion as I think that churches and other faith groups are doing a lot to help our youth in the activities they organize on a weekly basis. I would love to see a website, youth orientated and continuously updated, with activities for our youth at the various churches and others. It would be great to see something like one church group v another at broomball, for example. It would be good to see the kids in one group inviting their school friends to a non-threatening, non-challenging evening of bowling, or whatever is on the agenda for this weekend.

I think the youth activities in many of these organizations are wonderful, but I also think that if more people knew about what was happening they would be find something fun to do and be able to see those they know from school in a new setting.

Getting together has been the first step for you, but putting together something useful would be a great second step and also very practical.


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Posted by We were stonewalled.
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Mar 11, 2011 at 3:48 pm

I thank Rev. McDermott for his efforts on behalf of Palo Alto youth. I must respectfully disagree with him about what happened at the meeting however. I was at the meeting. It was not a good meeting. The district's presentation and its approach to this issue is often a thrown together list of stuff they are already doing any way -- faculty student basketball games, community service day, intramural games, etc. They definitely give the impression that when they have to give one of these presentations they look at the PTA newsletters for the different schools and quickly write up a grab-bag of random "what's happening this week at JLS" type stuff that could be conceivably defined under the broad heading of "connectedness" (i.e., activities that involve any adult and student combinations) that they can put on slides and call "connectedness."

Some activities have nothing whatever to do with the district but were driven by the parents and teachers at the local school who were sick of waiting for the district to act, like the Paly bell schedule.

There is no sense that there is an overarching, coordinated, systematic response. There is no sense of any effort to figure out how to evaluate these programs so that we can ensure they are effective. There is no effort to address academic stress. It is no wonder that parents got upset. Parents came up with this list of questions below. None of them were answered. It has been nearly a month and the questions are still unanswered.

If Rev. McDermott wants to help parents to improve connectedness, and I am positive he does want to, he could be of great assistance in pressuring the district to return to St. Marks and answer these questions rather than complimenting the district and urging it to "continue its good work." With all due respect, that was not a successful meeting by any definition of the term because the district stonewalled the parents. Community leaders need to represent the community -- including the community's anger and frustration -- not flatter and praise the local political officials who are failing our kids.

Copied from the other thread:

Below are the questions that were submitted on cards by the audience at the St. Mark's youth forum. They were compiled by the forum's organizers and then submitted to the school district. The Weekly requested a copy, which was provided by the Superintendent's office.

February 13, 2011 Community Meeting

Questions submitted by the audience.

1. How will you measure success specifically?

2. While respecting each school's autonomy, how will you ensure enough is being done at each site? A little here and there will not be enough.

3. Why don't you speak to the issue? Why can't you speak directly? Kids are lost and need mentors. Cut the BABBLE. HELP!

4. When will the plan for next year be done and presented?

5. Amy D said: "We have learned that if we push our kids to work hard, they'll do it." BUT aren't we learning that this is false -- that kids don't want to be pushed? That it is to much?

6. JLS has the "Connections" program

a. Who does it serve?

b. How successful is it?

c. Why doesn't a similar program exist at the other middle schools and the high schools?

7. Shouldn't we hire seasoned professionals -- licensed MFTs or LCSWs for our schools?

8. It is fine to give the principals some autonomy in getting things done, but why is Dr. Skelly afraid to lead on the issue? He is the Superintendent. What does he have against this focus goal?

9. Why are thing so different among schools -- e.g. Tier Camp, Panther Camp -- Where's Jordan's? The Addison community event -- why isn't it happening elsewhere?

10. What has changed?

11. The feeling of frustration is obvious among concerned parents. Many are eager to engage in change -- but the administration and principals seem to avoid engaging parents but speak to them, if they speak at all.

12. Why go through all the programs we already know about that we know aren't enough?

13. This is a middle and especially high school problem. Why are you bringing elementary programs into this meeting?

14. How many students do these programs involve - Camp Everytown, SLC at high schools?

15. Where are the teachers tonight?

16. From Amy's presentation, am I to conclude that nothing new has been done this year? All the programs she listed have not been effective if you listen to the students.

17. Aren't most of these programs self-selective -- i.e. they only reach kids who choose to be reached? What % of kids are actually in these programs?

18. Clubs have existed for a long time. We have concern for students who do not want a club. What will be for them?

19. Why did it take so long to make the "social-emotional" need a top goal? Please Reply.

20. I've been impressed with the Connections program at JLS. Any thoughts on expanding that program into the other middle schools in the district? (Seems to be a great learning community)

21. The TEAM program at Paly seems to be an enormous step toward connectedness. Why not expand it to all or most freshman?

22. How can the schools improve identifying suicidal youth?

23. How is the district educating students about their own social/emotional behavioral development and growth so they know when to break the so called "code of silence?"

24. What % of HS students in Palo Alto attend camp Everytown? Is there a risk that this experience leaves a student open and raw with no good outlet to help them reintegrate into the rat race?

25. Can you expand the "peer helper" program in the high schools in a substantial way?

26. Why are kids who are failing not held back?

27. More after school programs. The "bully" on the school ground.

28. Please stop using acronyms!!

29. There is much talk of the benefits of the Paly bell schedule. What's stopping its implementation at Gunn?

30. Regarding the various programs at the school level:

a. Are all kids aware of these programs?

b. Are kids given an opportunity to give feed back on the effectiveness of these programs?

31. Why was this meeting not advertised in the Gunn Connection (email) newsletter?

32. What changes can parents make at home to support connectedness at school?

33. Girls Middle School has a connectedness program where a teacher and group (6-10) students meet regularly through-out the year to discuss stresses and concerns in school life. Can this be done at Gunn?

34. Challenge success is one of the most innovative programs to address the underlying culture in high achieving communities and is based right here at Stanford. Why hasn't PAUSD embraced this program?

35. The focused goal was passed 5 months ago and this is all that there is to report? What in the world are they doing? Haven't they looked at best practices anywhere else? We don't have to re-create the wheel.

36. To Amy Drolette:

a. List of Systematic Programs is business as usual.

b. Same old programs will not have a different result.

c. Grade level list: same as above

37. As an educator, I recognize "edu-speak". My child is still invisible to his teachers. How do you get a teacher to "buy in"?

38. Is ACS doing an adequate job?

39. Are interns sufficiently trained to deal with suicidal teens?

40. Why are so many students dying?

41. Are we asking PAUSD to change our culture or are we going to change our culture?

42. I no longer feel proud to be a student at Palo Alto because I get sad when my friends die.

43. I am most concerned about children who don't have friends, who eat alone. Does PAUSD reach out to them?

44. Amy mentioned lots of clubs, extracurriculars etc. Is anyone measuring or seeking out those kids that don't participate in any of those or STOP attending? (e.g. signs of disconnection)

45. What does connectedness have to do with the competition described by the Gunn student?

46. High school counselors recently came to JLS to talk to incoming freshmen. My 8th grade son came home that afternoon and as we talked about the presentation, he said, "I think I need to get a tutor for studying for the SAT." As a family, we've never talked about the SAT, at least not yet. One of our wonderful youth speakers tonight said, "teach us to value ourselves outside of academics." High school isn't just about pumping kids up for college. What is the message you want your counselors to give new students about making high school a truly meaningful, healthy experience?

47. Is there a planned budget increase for 2012 for psychiatric staff in-house at Gunn and Paly?

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Posted by parent
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 11, 2011 at 5:09 pm

I'm a little frustrated by all the attention on what the schools are doing for the kids. What is the Advocates for Youth doing? Other than identifying connectedness, what programs have they put in place? Are they participating in the Developmental Assets program I heard about at a PTA meeting? All I see them doing is asking what the schools are doing on top of their charge of educating our children and then denigrating their programs. Also, all ll schools do not need to have the same programs. Each school has worked to put their own programs in place. What works in one school may not be equally effective in another. Instead of highlighting one school's program, please say what all 3 middle schools are doing. This is so incredibly divisive and unhelpful to me. It also sounds very righteous to me.

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Posted by Member of Advocates for Youth
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 11, 2011 at 7:59 pm

To parent, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood

To address your concerns about what the Advocates for Youth doing. We are a volunteer based group of concerned members of this community. We are active members and leaders in the PTA throughout the district, we volunteer in the class rooms, we run parent ed with the PTA, we drive on field trips, we run our youth groups, we train our youth in QPR, a technique used to help out troubled friends, one of our members was a founder of ACS (Adolescent Counseling Services) which is a key component of Project Safety Net, we have organized 11 congregations to focus on taking care of kids who fall through the cracks, we drove an effort to get social-emotional issues as a top focused goal in the district which various groups have unsuccessfully been trying to do for 30 years. We have dedicated countless hours of our time with the sole goal of helping EVERY student in the Palo Alto Unified School District.

That is just a small part of who we are and what we have done. Most importantly we are advocating for our youth. We are standing up to say that the community can do better for our kids and that all need to be involved.

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Posted by parent
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 11, 2011 at 8:29 pm

To member: I'm sure many of you are members of invidividual PTAs. What are you doing as a group to help with the connectedness issue? What are you doing as individual members? Parent Ed isn't addressing the kids, field trips do not help connectedness, youth groups only address the kids that are part of your groups, not the kids who may really need the help. What exactly have you done as an 11 congregations group to focus on taking care of kids who fall through the cracks, other than point the finger at the school district? I'm not sure you all are responsible for the SEL focus as it has become a national issue. All I'm asking is that instead of pointing out who you think is the problem is that you become a part of the solution by actually doing something.

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Posted by Wondering
a resident of Barron Park
on Mar 11, 2011 at 8:36 pm

Reading this article is very disappointing. Students finally had a someone really advocating for them, but now at the first sight of trouble, the advocates join the district. We all know that the February meeting went wrong, and the district looked bad, so I am wondering if Rev. MacDermontt was forced to do this.I know the district is very powerful and could had threatened him. This sounds very fishy. It only shows how much power they district has over all people.
Well, at least they tried, but they could not really stand up for our kids, the district knock them out.

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Posted by Midtown Mom
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 11, 2011 at 8:50 pm

Thanks to Reverend McDermott and the members of this committee. I like the tone you're setting -- of working with the district and the professionals there to meet the connectedness goal. I've stood by for years, feeling like something needed to be done, but not being able to put my finger exactly on what it was that I thought was missing. Good for you all to do the research and figure out what the missing piece was. And congratulations and thank you for persuading the School Board and the District administrators that connectedness was the worthy goal.

Agnostic and humble -- good for you for reminding me that my one anti-religion knee-jerk reaction might actually just be a jerk reaction. Thank you.

Stonewalled -- it does sound like Dr. Skelly and his team missed a great opportunity. I hope your call for further information does not go unheeded. Maybe there is another community meeting planned? I will definitely be there if that turns out to be the case.

Member -- thank you for the work you have done. We could have had more handwringing and harumphing, but you guys really did the hard work, in addition to all of your other volunteer work. Thank you. I appreciate your focus on connecting every student with the adults in the schools. And I like the fact that your team says very clearly that this is an issue for the entire community. Yes, we can do better for our kids.

Finally, parent -- I appreciate your verve. But I don't think that this group can go into the schools and "do something" -- even though that is a very broad and non-specific suggestion. Reverend McDermott quoted the CDC as saying "School connectedness was defined as the belief by students that adults in the school care about their learning as well as about them as individuals." I think that means professional school personnel. But if it doesn't mean that -- if it just means any guy off the street could enter the school and start caring about kids, then maybe driving those field trips and volunteering in the classroom does fall under your very broad "do something" umbrella.

But I am very happy to have them keep doing what they're doing: helping to define the problem then handing it over to the professionals to solve in whatever varied ways the professionals see fit, and keeping an eye on them to make sure it gets done in a meaningful way. Thanks again. We've been waiting a long time.

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Posted by parent
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 12, 2011 at 9:01 am

Here's an interesting comprehensive paper on connectedness (read the entire paper, or at least the entire conclusion, don't take out snippets -- as I will resist the temptation to do , too.)

Thanks to the parents to keep at this issue. I personally hope you work at eliminating some of the systemic challenges to connectedness (such as our going megaschool rather than 3 optimally sized high schools), and reduce academic stress by things like moving finals to before the holidays, but please don't take away opportunities (instead make it safe for kids to explore to see what they can do by putting in academic safety nets).

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Posted by parent
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 12, 2011 at 9:02 am

Oops, here's the link to the paper on connectedness
Web Link

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Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 12, 2011 at 9:12 am

To Agnostic and Atheist

I don't think this group is trying to put religion in the schools and I don't think religion is preying on our youth in a time of weakness. Both of these ideas are cliches which are completely unfounded in what this group is trying to do.

It is often in a time of difficulty that people start searching themselves and looking at their faith to help them get through. But agin, I don't think this is what is happening here either.

What I do see is that a group of organizations have joined together to corporately benefit the youth of this community. These organizations happen to be faith based and of different faiths. Since they are not school affiliated then they can do things that the schools cannot. Since they are not all of one faith, they can do things which one faith alone could not do which is attempt to reach out to all the youth in Palo Alto.

At least they are trying to do something positive which is a great deal of something.

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Posted by parent
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 12, 2011 at 12:30 pm

I'm not sure what you mean by "these ideas" are unfounded -- there is good psychological research showing that kids who think about suicide are less likely to actually attempt it when "connectedness" factor is higher. The concept of "connectedness" gets a lot of study, the above link has references.

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Posted by Atheist and Proud
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 12, 2011 at 1:56 pm


They aren't trying to push religion, but they are exceptionally nice to people, reel them in, and then introduce religion to them. That's how religions recruit.

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Posted by An Unhappy Audience
a resident of Palo Verde
on Mar 12, 2011 at 2:46 pm

Why Does Rev. MacDermott thanks the district? When they have to push them so much to make changes and no change has occurred. The video recorded at the meeting, shows that the parents were unhappy because no changes have been done since the end of September. Therefore, there is no reason to thank them, to the contrary, they should say nothing or demand that they start to get into action, not just words. Also who is going to be responsible to answer the question that the audience submitted at the meeting. The person chairing the meeting told us that they were going to post the questions and the answers, otherwise it serves no purpose for us to write them if nothing is done about it. On hat side is this reverend the students who are struggling and taking their lives or the district people who get a pay check and do nothing about it?

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Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 13, 2011 at 4:35 pm


What do you have against people being extremely nice to youth? It is very cynical and antagonistic to mistrust those you know nothing about when they are trying to help our youth. Most of the people in this group claim to belong to PTAs and other organizations which help youth also, like sports organizations, and that is probably OK with you. Or are you suspicious of them also?

At least they are being open and honest. They are faith based organizations trying to help out in a time of need. Would you be against the Salvation Army offering shelter to you after an earthquake destroyed your home?

Nice people do nice things because they are nice people.

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Posted by Were we at the same meeting?
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 13, 2011 at 5:38 pm

I was at the meeting that Rev. McDermott is talking about in this editorial. Another view of what happened there can be found at Web Link (the Palo Alto Weekly report on the meeting titled "Parents, school officials exchange tense words"). I have a lot of respect for Rev. McDermott, but I'm afraid that in this case he is moving a little too quickly to smooth over what was legitimate contention over how much PAUSD has actually followed through on the connectedness goals. It's important to have civility and good feeling, but it's also important to have reasonable expectations that we're going to get genuine and effective effort. Otherwise what's the point of having the goals in the first place? A good place to start would be the questions that we wrote down that are repeated in an earlier comment -- can we have answers to those, please, and can Rev. McDermott add his voice to those asking the district to respond to them?

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Posted by Need real answers
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 13, 2011 at 7:59 pm

I was also at the meeting and could not agree more with "Were we at the same meeting?".

Let's not thank anyone yet until we get some real cooperation and some real answers.

For starters, when and how will we get answers to the questions asked? Just because Dr. Skelly and Ms. Drolette managed to drag out their presentation and be "saved by the bell", thereby escaping any meaningful engagement, does not mean we still don't have unanswered questions.

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Posted by We want Answers
a resident of Palo Verde
on Mar 13, 2011 at 8:39 pm

Yes, we want answers, we want action on the side of the district not just words. Our kids need Reverend MacDermott to keep standing up for them, not bowing to the district. We want the district to stop pretending things are ok. They are not. We just lost a Paly student to suicide a little more then a month ago. So this means that whatever the district is trying to pretend to be doing is really not effective or not enough. We can't just let our students die, and kiss the district a.. and tell them thanks for what they are doing. You heard them at the February meeting, they could have not come out with the answer because they have done nothing after Sep. 30, 2010. Someone needs to be responsible and give us the answers we asked at the meeting. We also asked questions at the first meeting and nothing happened with them. [Portion removed due to disrespectful comment or offensive language]

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Posted by Why?
a resident of Barron Park
on Mar 14, 2011 at 9:54 am

Reverend MacDermott, Why would you back up on the kids? Did someone asked you to do it? Was it Skelly? I hope so, otherwise it will mean that you really do not care abut the emotional needs of our kids. This article has really put us down. We were feeling really good about the meeting at your church because that really opened the eyes of the Superintendent when he realized that they could not come up with something that they had done after they adopted. Your last paragraph completely contradicts with what is really happening. You said you something like this "we call for our leadership to continue its good work.. " how could you call "its good work" If they were doing a good work for our kids you would not be involved in this issue in the first place. To me Reverend, you are not being truthful. You only want the district people not to look so bad, but they do deserve to look bad, because they have been ignoring our kids social and emotional needs. They only care about the academics and who is better at competing and making the school famous. Many parents are felling dissappointed after reading you article

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Posted by EcoMama
a resident of Community Center
on Mar 14, 2011 at 11:32 am

Wow, I just checked back to read comments and can't believe some of the negativity being directed at this positive-minded group and most esp. at Rev. McDermott. I think most of you need to read the letter again. It appears to me that this group IS challenging the district to keep moving forward with implementing effective programs. Just because they wrote the letter in a nice tone and indicate that they want to partner with the district doesn't mean the group isn't making demands of the district as well. Those of us at the meeting saw the lady at the end ask questions of Skelly repeatedly to point out the differences in the middle schools and that Jordan doesn't have the same "camp" programming as JLS and Terman. I think the lady was from that group and was calling Skelly to task.

Advocating for kids is a positive thing, not a negative thing -- and pledging to work with the district is one way of saying they're holding the district's feet to the fire, isn't it?! Like I said before, you catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar ... I'm pleased to see progress from this group, and, frankly, I don't see any other groups holding independent public meetings that the district attends. At least it's something.

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Posted by parents
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 14, 2011 at 5:15 pm

Ecomama- I am a Jordan parent. I don't want two weeks spent at camp. Jordan does a great job getting kids transitioned from elementary to middle school. I've had two kids go through. What works well for one school may not work well for another. Just because a program sounds good doesn't mean it is better than what is already in place. I urge you all to ask your schools directly what they are doing for student connectedness. You may be surprised.

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Posted by ISO real leaders
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 14, 2011 at 8:20 pm

We need leaders, not just cheerleaders...

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Posted by mom of jordan student
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Mar 15, 2011 at 9:00 am

Jordan has a 6th grade team building day run by staff, parents, leadership students and student council. It is only one day, but they do a great job helping the kids get to know each other. Panther camp probably gets more publicity because they use PiE $$ to fund it and PiE likes to let people know what their donations accomplish.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.