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The Discipline Dilemma

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Barbara Ferguson arrives at 5:30 A.M. for another day at Cincinnati's Schwab Middle School. The first thing she faces are these numbers: Out of 900 students, 56 are suspended, 17 are expelled, five have been recommended for expulsion, and 21 have been assigned to "in school'' suspension. Another 18 are on the "do not admit'' list, awaiting administrative action. And this December school day will only add to the tally: In 6 hours, two boys will have had an angry lunchroom argument, two girls will have been suspended for snatching a third girl's teddy bear, the police will have come and left with a trespasser in tow, and a teacher will accuse a student of assaulting her. Ferguson, Schwab's assistant principal, will have her hands full again.

In spending a day with administrators at Schwab--which is neither Cincinnati's best middle school nor its worst--it becomes possible to forget that there are classes being taught in the low-slung, 1950's brick building. Trying to maintain discipline takes a heavy toll on class time and teachers' energy. And this year, the toll is even heavier because the school's staff is struggling with a new approach to student discipline that emphasizes keeping students in school and helping them learn appropriate behavior. It's a tall order.

But something had to be done. Last year, the 50,000 students in the Cincinnati public schools racked up 1,292 expulsions, 14,949 out-of-school suspensions, and 16,464 in-school suspensions. In three years, in fact, the number of suspensions and expulsions of Cincinnati students had nearly tripled. Last spring, faced with the ever-increasing discipline numbers, the school district was at a crossroads.

"Virtually everyone is frustrated by the current situation,'' wrote members of an advisory board charged with recommending ways to improve discipline. "Many are angry. Most who are daily engaged in the responsibilities of schooling and raising children are near their wits' end over what to do.''

Under intense community pressure, the district is struggling to move away from a punitive approach to discipline to one that assumes responsibility for teaching students appropriate behavior. But a wide gulf separates parents and teachers, many of whom accuse one another of creating the discipline crisis. And few people in Cincinnati are optimistic that the schools' discipline problems--symptoms of breakdowns in both schools and society--will be solved anytime soon.

Taxpayers showed their own frustration in November, when they rejected a $348 million bond issue that would have financed repairs to deteriorating schools. Although higher taxes were the primary reason for the levy's failure, dissatisfaction with school discipline also played a large role. On one hand, some voters rejected the schools for failing to provide the kinds of disciplined places where children can learn. On the other, the Baptist Ministers Conference of Cincinnati and Vicinity actively campaigned against the bond issue, complaining that schools were unfairly punishing black children, who make up 63 percent of students in the district.

Cincinnatians, of course, are hardly alone in feeling besieged by discipline problems. As the nation's streets grow ever more violent, and conflict seems the most popular way to settle disagreements, schools across the nation are crying out for help. The American Federation of Teachers has formed a task force on school violence and safety to gather information on discipline policies. Increasingly, union locals are taking tough bargaining positions, pressing districts to adopt stronger discipline codes. But the activism can also backfire. In Cincinnati, the educational and political turmoil over discipline has reached such a pitch that teachers are going to be held accountable for their success or failure in managing students' behavior.

The new standard, part of the settlement last fall of a 19-year-old desegregation case, has angered teachers, who say they will be unfairly held accountable for behavior far beyond their control. But it is intended to address a troubling truth about the schools: They suspend and expel a disproportionate number of black male students each year.

Making the switch from a negative, punitive approach to discipline won't be easy, especially if teachers feel unfairly singled out for blame. But Lionel Brown, the deputy superintendent in charge of the new Office of Student Discipline, says teachers and administrators must handle the litany of problems that kids bring to school each day.

"We do not want to acknowledge that these problems are going to call for creative, new, and different strategies and programs,'' he asserts. "We want to look at discipline in the old-fashioned way: That is, all we need to do is tell Johnny what it is we expect, and if he doesn't do it, we're going to administer the consequences. That no longer works.''

At Schwab, administrators are working hard to reduce the number of students who are kicked out of school. Much of that responsibility falls on Ferguson's shoulders. This day, she walks the halls in a navy-blue suit and white shirt, exuding a no-nonsense air. She calls herself "a Cincinnati kid'': She was born, reared, and educated here before beginning her teaching career in 1969. Three years ago, she says, during her first year at Schwab, the school suspended and expelled more students--about 1,700--than any other school in the city. The numbers have come down steadily since then. Middle school students are at a notoriously difficult age, and it's getting tougher. "I put in a 12-hour day before you know it,'' Ferguson says.

Disciplinary problems at Schwab run in cycles. The neighborhood school, built on a leveled-out hill overlooking an industrial area called Northside, serves a broad mix of students: poor Appalachian whites, blacks from a nearby housing project, and students of both those races who live in better circumstances in other neighborhoods. Racial tension can be a problem, as are fights between students who live in different parts of town. Some weeks, Principal Dennis Matthews says, he "goes down to the bottom of the hill'' to settle trouble every day; other times, the school goes two or three weeks without incident. "The students take up so much of your time, trying to keep them under control,'' he says. "My supervisor told me I must get into the classrooms and work with teachers. My goal was to be in a classroom four times every day, but that's unrealistic.''

Although this day begins routinely enough for Ferguson--making sure absent teachers have substitutes and arranging for risers to be set up in the auditorium for class pictures--it soon turns hectic. The trouble starts at mid-morning, when the security staff catches two boys trespassing on school grounds. The police are called in. One of the two boys, a skinny kid with a bad cold, slouches in a chair as the officers question him. Ferguson suspects his presence is related to a fight at Schwab the previous month for which two students were suspended. One has carried a grudge, and the trespasser could be at school to help him out in another fight. Later, the police officer who escorted the boy out of the building tells Ferguson that he admitted that he had come to Schwab for just that purpose.

Students at Schwab are most often suspended and expelled for unruly conduct (insubordination), disorderly conduct (disrupting class), fighting, and profanity. Under the district's code of conduct, fighting and profanity directed at a teacher are punishable by automatic out-of-school suspensions. "Our kids' mouths get them into trouble,'' Ferguson explains. "There's a lot of back talking and talking in class--just uncooperative behavior.''

To stop that, Ferguson and others hope to teach students how to behave, how to develop self-control, and how to improve their academic skills. Schwab's staff has organized itself into interdisciplinary teams, hoping the approach will cut down on discipline problems and boost achievement. In addition, each teacher has a 30-minute adviser/advisee period, to spend time talking to students about their concerns. A girl in one class, for example, says four girls recently threatened to jump her. "It helps kids ventilate,'' Ferguson says of the period.

Schwab isn't without resources to address its discipline problems. The school has an administrative assistant who helps with discipline, two full-time counselors, a half-time counselor, and a six-person security staff. On this day, a team assigned by Brown's office is here, helping with one of the in-house discipline programs that have been set up. So is a hearing officer from the district legal counsel's office, who will conduct a due-process hearing for a student who has been recommended for expulsion. Angelina Marple, the lead security officer and an 18-year veteran of the school, is Ferguson's right arm. Today, she's wearing a Christmas-tree pin on her blazer lapel. "On a daily basis,'' Marple says, "I think we have a good school. The whole staff works as a team, and that's what makes it work.''

Administrators have been forced to innovate to control disruptive students. When Matthews arrived at Schwab last fall, his office was swamped with 35 kids a day, sent out of their classrooms for misbehavior. Out of necessity, he created what is called 90-45, a time-out period for students. The program takes its name from its goal: to have 90 percent of the students engaged in 45 minutes of instruction each period. The other 10 percent, when they cause relatively minor problems, are sent to the library, where they can think about their behavior and work on modifying it, under supervision. Matthews says the program works. "Teachers came to me and said, 'I have to do a better job with my lesson plans. Before, there was only 25 minutes of teaching, and now we have 35 or 40.'''

On this day, Jernell Knott is in 90-45 for being late to class and sassing her teacher. "I was standing right by the door and the bell rang, and then I came in and [my teacher] told me to get out,'' the 7th grader explains. "He told me to shut up and get out. I was like, 'You make me shut up.'''

Just before noon, Ferguson pays a visit to the lunchroom, where the in-school-suspension class for students who have committed more serious infractions is housed. To reduce the number of students put out of school, the district has established in-school suspension, staffed by instructional aides, in 69 of its 84 schools. In theory, it keeps students engaged in academic work and provides time for administrators to get troubled students counseling and other help. But if not properly administered, it can be nothing more than a holding tank.

Ericka Jackson, assigned to a three-day in-school suspension, says she is being disciplined for refusing to go outside at lunchtime because it was too cold. "The kids think discipline is too tough here,'' she complains. "They suspend you for stupid stuff.'' It is not clear, however, what Ericka is learning: She says she has spent the day writing a "research report'' on cabbage by copying the encyclopedia.

Marcus Tisdale, an 8th grader, is there for goofing around in class. "It's really boring,'' Marcus says of in-school suspension. "That's why nobody wants to be in there. You can't talk or nothing.''

Most people in Cincinnati date the schools' current struggles with discipline to 1988. That year, the board of education banned corporal punishment. The ban on "swats,'' however, wasn't followed up by new discipline techniques or training. At the same time, the board directed the schools to reduce the number of students who were suspended or expelled. Later that year, it removed a number of offenses requiring mandatory expulsion from its disciplinary code. The result, says Tom Mooney, the president of the Cincinnati Federation of Teachers, was "our worst nightmare come true. Discipline went to hell. The kids were running the schools.''

In 1991, after its annual membership surveys had shown that teachers felt discipline had sharply deteriorated, the union negotiated a new discipline policy that Mooney calls "a crackdown.'' The category of offenses warranting mandatory expulsions was increased, as was the leverage teachers had in getting administrators to enforce the code. The new code relied heavily on suspensions and expulsions to restore order to the classrooms, and the number of students kicked out of school skyrocketed, from 6,669 students who were suspended a total of 11,699 times during the 1990-91 school year to 10,210 students who were suspended 20,684 times--with elementary-age children accounting for 7,027 of the total number of suspensions--the next year.

In August of 1992, the district released a report, ordered by the judge overseeing the desegregation case, documenting the racial disparities in discipline. It was fuel for an already hot fire, although it did not point to a specific cause for the overrepresentation of black students in suspensions and expulsions. Junious Williams, the consultant who wrote the report, lacked the data to test the assertion that low income is more strongly related to discipline than is race. But the report noted that many school employees believed that poverty is the reason for the disparity in percentages of white and black students disciplined.

Williams's report found that Cincinnati's suspension rate in 1988 placed it 14th out of the 100 largest school districts. While black students were suspended at higher rates than whites, white students in Cincinnati were also suspended at higher rates than white students in other districts. And Williams was troubled by data showing that the district was willing to punish even very young students harshly.

"The startling thing,'' Williams says, "is that the rate of suspension for one year for 3rd graders was higher than 12th graders'. It stupifies me when I think about that.''

Williams, a former Detroit school executive who has advised school districts across the country, also made a number of suggestions for improving discipline. Many have been followed. The Office of Student Discipline, for example, was created to coordinate efforts. "We were all over the place,'' Brown, the deputy superintendent, says. "There were no coherent policies, no consistent practices, and no central guidance.'' With the help of a 60-member Discipline Advisory Board, Brown's office overhauled the district's code of behavior, developed recommended alternatives to suspension, worked with outside agencies to offer programs for troubled students, and helped schools develop their own discipline plans. The code of behavior spells out parents' and students' rights, including the due-process procedure, and includes definitions of terms like "unruly'' and "disorderly.''

Perhaps the most important change was the decision to take an educational stance toward discipline in elementary school by teaching students what is expected of them. The "progressive'' code expects students' behavior to improve as they get older and calls for less-serious consequences for first offenses. The policies are having an impact: suspensions of elementary students declined 33 percent in the first quarter of this school year. Total suspensions fell 10.8 percent.

To reduce the racial disparities, Williams urges the district to find alternative ways of addressing the behaviors for which black males are most likely to be suspended.

"White kids in Cincinnati and other locales have higher rates of removal for substance-abuse offenses,'' he explains, "and blacks have higher rates of removal for fighting. When you look at how schools react, what's happened with smoking and drug abuse is the equivalent of a diversion program, a recognition that it's a health issue as well as a behavioral issue. They get kids into treatment. But when you look at fighting in the sense that it is disproportionately impacting black kids, you find no attempt to deal with it as a mental-health issue.''

At lunchtime, the time of day when discipline generally starts to deteriorate, Ferguson, Marple, Matthews, and other members of the school staff, all carrying Motorola walkie-talkies, deploy themselves to help students get in and out of the lunchroom. Ferguson spots two white boys who are arguing and attempts to get to the bottom of their problem. One boy says the other made a derogatory remark about his mother during a previous class. As the boys argue, the assistant principal questions them. "If there's a problem,'' she tells them, "come first to an adult. Don't take things into your own hands. And if somebody says something about your mother and it's not true,'' she tells one boy, "don't let it get you upset.'' Ferguson then escorts both boys to class.

Back in the office, things are heating up. A white teacher comes through the door, points to a slight black boy seated in the waiting area, and tells Matthews, who is on his way into his office to deal with a group of girls, that the boy pushed her. "Write a referral,'' Matthews says, as he closes his door.

The principal is faced with three black girls and a white girl, whose teddy bear was taken from her in the gymnasium during lunch. He is getting angry. "You kids don't think,'' Matthews lectures. "Confrontation is a way of life with you. Did she do anything to you? No. See, this is what I'm trying to teach you kids. Nowadays, you kids think, 'If my friend has a problem, I have to join in,' and that's what scares me. Your code is, 'Do whatever you can.' And now you're caught dead to rights. You're sorry you got caught, but you are not sorry you did it.''

The principal tells the girls, who don't say much, that he lives by the golden rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. They should try it, he advises. "If you get away from the hatred, you might have a lot in common, if you get away from the color,'' he says. "If you use common sense, this wouldn't have happened.''

As he does the paperwork to suspend two of the girls who were involved in taking the bear, Matthews complains that parents don't think suspension is a serious offense and don't know what to do with their children when they are home. "Parents don't want to discipline their children. I tell them, 'Make her scrub the walls.' They say, 'She's not going to do that.'''

Matthews doesn't put much stock in the complaint that the schools' discipline problems stem from racism. "I get sick of hearing, 'White teachers don't care about black kids,''' he fumes. "We all do our best. That's garbage for me. One of the things that blacks don't do is to assume responsibility for themselves. We blame everything on white people.''

Basically, the principal says, schools are a weak influence on students' lives. "We can do a little bit,'' he adds, "but if violence is not wrong at home, schools cannot change a student's behavior.''

The issue of violence is not a simple matter of right and wrong. Zakia McKinney, a parent who has been active in revising the discipline policies, says many children are forced to live in two worlds: the streets and the schools. Outside of school, if you get hit and don't fight back, you'll get beaten up. And when you get home, "Mother or Father gives you a whooping, because you didn't take up for yourself,'' she says. Schools need to understand the realities of students' lives, she urges, and not "belittle'' their experiences. And that's hard, she acknowledges, for middle-class people, black and white, to do.

Says Brown, the deputy superintendent: "The European experience may say, 'Let's teach our children to talk about this and talk about that, and this is how you handle conflict, how you mediate.' The African-American experience is not going to be the same. Kids are not going to be homogenized, they are just not. We need to wake up and realize the reality of this.''

At the same time, though, Brown says he is not very enthusiastic about offering widespread teacher training in cultural diversity. "I'm beginning to feel that white teachers are beginning to resent that,'' he says. "Many of them are caring, and these are just difficult times they have to deal with.''

One of the many strategies the district is offering to help students with their behavior is Bushido, a martial-arts program that tries to control disruptive or violent behavior by teaching judo and self-discipline. Brown thinks the program may win points with students, because it includes an emphasis on physical action rather than just talking through problems.

Given the fact that many of the students who are discipline problems are also low achievers, the schools also have to do a better job at teaching academics. And discipline problems multiply when students are bored in school or when what they are learning seems to have no relevance to their lives.

On a 30-minute videotape the district prepared to help elementary teachers learn how to teach the code of behavior, the view of teaching and learning that comes across is traditional. Students are shown singing that they will "let the teacher teach,'' but, other than the admonition that students must follow their teachers' directions, no mention is made of a role for the youngsters themselves in the learning process.

Despite dramatic evidence that it must do so, concludes Zulfi Ahmad, the district's research director, the school system is simply failing to reinvent itself. "So far,'' he says, "we have been finding excuses and have not looked the problem in the face to say that we are going to redesign the delivery system. The school system still is saying, 'Change them. Change the parents. Change the kids.' That is the problem.''

The teacher at Schwab who is claiming that she was assaulted says that the incident took place in the hallway as she was telling the boy to go to class. It was the second warning she had given him to move out of the hall, she says. The boy claims that the teacher grabbed him and that he yanked his arm away. Both agree she took his hat off his head.

Ferguson is seated in the teachers' lounge, interviewing the accused student and a boy who witnessed the incident. She asks both of them to fill out statements. The child accused by the teacher is developmentally handicapped and takes Ritalin to help him settle down and concentrate in school. He's been in trouble before. Today, he didn't get to take his medicine at the normal time because of a disruption in the schedule.

Because the child is a special-education student, Ferguson needs to meet with his teachers to decide whether the incident was related to his disability. Then, she has to get in touch with the boy's parents and set up a conference. She has to notify the board of education that the teacher is claiming assault, and she has to arrange a conference with someone from the legal counsel's office to determine whether the boy is to be expelled. It's a lot of work, and she methodically tackles the paperwork and procedures to set the wheels in motion. If the boy is found guilty, he will receive special home instruction.

Back in her office, Ferguson reads the statements and interviews the teacher. The witness turns out to be saying two different things. "Did you touch him at all?'' the assistant principal asks. "I did not touch him at all,'' the teacher replies. "I didn't block them physically. I just put my arm out to say, 'Hey, guys.'''

"This will be a no-win situation,'' Matthews sighs, "but I will deal with it.'' If the school backs the teacher, the student's parents are likely to complain. But if it does not, it risks alienating the teacher.

There are plenty of teachers in Cincinnati who are feeling alienated right now. Some are afraid. The source of their concern is the agreement that ends court monitoring of the desegregation case, under which the district has integrated itsschools and staff. Because of the concern about possible bias in discipline, the agreement calls for the district to develop a system to hold teachers, administrators, and other staff members accountable for "student behavior management.'' Staff members who are found to be competent should be eligible for rewards and incentives, the agreement says, and those who are not "will not be retained in their positions if they fail to improve their skills and effectiveness ... after having been provided with opportunities to do so.''

It adds, however, that teachers will not be removed from their positions or disciplined "solely'' because of the number of students they refer for disciplinary action.

Finally, the agreement requires principals to keep detailed records of discipline referrals, including the name, race, gender, age, and grade of the student; the name and race of the person making the referral; and the disposition of it. These records are to be used in the accountability process and by individual schools to make adjustments to their discipline plans.

Mooney, the union president, and his membership believe that the agreement unfairly blames teachers for the schools' discipline problems and is silent on the role of parents, and students themselves, in sharing responsibility for the breakdown in discipline. Teachers also say the settlement ignores the key role principals play in discipline. And instead of focusing solely on collecting racial data, they argue, the district should collect information on students' family income, which they believe is more strongly related to discipline problems than is race.

"When it comes to teacher evaluation and dismissal,'' Mooney says, "they have to come through us. We are not going to agree to something that's crude and simplistic and blames teachers for how students act.''

"If teachers have classroom-management deficiencies,'' he continues, "should they have immediate access to training? Absolutely. Has there been too high a tolerance level for that problem? Certainly. And it would be great to have some immediate place to send people for some additional training. If they don't improve should they be removed? Yes, obviously, that's the main reason that people get fired right now.''

The union, which has begun negotiations on a new contract, is supporting more frequent evaluations of teachers and says it will reconsider the policy that leaves it up to individual teachers to decide whether to assign work to suspended students.

Teachers are uneasy, at best, about the data-gathering called for in the settlement. One teacher asked Dean Dennis, a union field representative, whether she should start worrying about the race of students she disciplines and whether sending them to the office would "go on her record.'' Other teachers have asked when the district will begin "monitoring'' them. Brown, the deputy superintendent, says the district has no intention of violating the teachers' contract in designing the accountability system, which is to be in place next school year.

"Teachers are fearful,'' Jerome Tuggle, another field representative, says. "There is no clear focus on how this data is going to be used. A lot of people are going to be covering their behinds.''

At Peoples Middle School, a school with discipline problems in the exclusive Hyde Park neighborhood, Tuggle is met in the hall by a teacher who demands to know why Mooney is proposing more frequent evaluations. Kathy Young, another teacher at Peoples, tells Tuggle that some students set a fire at school that day. "These kids are horrible,'' Young says. "They have no respect for themselves or for anyone else. I feel today the way I usually feel in May, and this is just December.''

Young says a group of 75 to 100 students recently rampaged through the school at lunchtime, forcing administrators to call off the lunch period in hopes they would return to class. She stresses that it's a small minority of students who cause trouble, but that too many middle-school-age children are ready to go along. "They don't pay me enough money to be abused by a child,'' she says. "You call the parents and they say, 'Call Juvenile.' They have allowed this child to act a fool for years.''

The finger pointing between teachers and parents in Cincinnati is part of what Mooney calls the "backlash'' against the 1991 discipline crackdown that increased suspensions and expulsions. Some parents and community members complain that the teachers' union is inflexible, insisting on punishing students instead of improving teaching techniques. Many believe that the federation's involvement in creating the discipline code has made it part of the teachers' contract, although the union insists that, legally, it is not. And parents of students who are removed from school resent the fact that teachers are not required to provide them with schoolwork, insuring that the students will be further behind when they return.

Diane Jordan, a parent who has worked to help improve discipline, voices a common complaint: "I believe that a lot of the conflicts that go on are things the teacher can handle, but they are not prepared to handle them. They are prepared to teach social studies, math, English, and language arts. The easiest thing to do is to put every conflict out of the classroom.''

"The people who are held most accountable in this whole mess are the kids,'' Williams, the court consultant, agrees. "The schools have held their feet to the fire consistently, and they're only part of the problem. Part of it has to do with the capability of the staff to manage behaviors that kids manifest and to effectively be able to intervene to minimize disruption when it occurs.''

After hearing repeated complaints from their congregations, five Baptist churches, in cooperation with the schools, have created "learning centers'' where suspended students can continue their schoolwork and get some informal counseling. While the ministers don't deny that some students have serious behavioral problems, they also have seen troubling evidence that schools are failing to look deeply enough into students' situations.

The first student to visit the learning center at Morning Star Baptist Church this school year had been suspended because of an altercation with a teacher over the boy's gym clothes, which he had neglected to bring to school. Calvin Harper, a retired Procter & Gamble chemist and the pastor of the church, says the child's teacher ordered him to write "I will remember to bring my gym clothes'' 150 times, but the student refused and was suspended. "We found out that the kid couldn't write,'' Harper says. "He was 10 years old. The principal automatically suspended the kid. Due process is not happening--a lot of kids are just put out. They are picking on young black boys.''

The ministers campaigned actively against the bond issue to send a strong message that black parents are fed up. Michael Cash, the pastor of the First New Shiloh Baptist Church and the head of the ministers' education committee, wants the district to offer teachers much more training in cultural diversity and to reward students for positive behavior.

"A lot of parents are uneducated, and the children themselves are intimidated and frustrated,'' he says. "The distrust level is so deep on both sides, and the trust level is so low, that nobody believes anybody.''

But Mooney says the new code of behavior, launched this school year, is a good one. The offenses that warrant mandatory expulsion, he notes, are all violations of criminal law. The only thing requiring a mandatory suspension that doesn't involve violence is swearing at a teacher, which the union president says was something his membership felt very strongly about.

"It was so out of control, in terms of creating an atmosphere of disrespect and kids in command,'' he explains. "Our response is to say, especially to those who happen to be ministers, 'Please look at these two lists and tell us which of these behaviors you would tolerate in church on Sunday, and we'll be happy to take it out.'''

Schwab's students have gone home for another day. Jodi Bounds, the school counselor, says she enrolled five new students today: "It's in and out, in and out.'' Ferguson is busy dealing with the yearbook photographer, who is trying to round up front-office workers to take their pictures. Her professional, straightforward demeanor has never wavered, although she has at least another couple of hours of work ahead.

She flips through the pile of discipline referrals that teachers have dropped in her mailbox since that morning.

"I don't think it was a bad day,'' Ferguson says. "We have days with no problems, and days where something occurs. I'm optimistic anything can be handled.''

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