This story was originally published in the Grand Forks Herald on March 03, 2012.
Tackling teenage troubles as a career, Red River High School counselor given state honor
By: Pamela Knudson, Grand Forks Herald
Marilyn Ripplinger, a counselor at Grand Forks’ Red River High School, still remembers how difficult her teenage years in Devils Lake were, and how she never asked for help. “I didn’t know anyone who went to a counselor for struggles like I had,” she said. At UND, those troubling years became a career inspiration, she said. “I wanted to be in a position, myself, to reach out and help kids with the challenges they face.”
Talk about it Marilyn Ripplinger, a counselor at Grand Forks’ Red River High School, still remembers how difficult her teenage years in Devils Lake were, and how she never asked for help.
“I didn’t know anyone who went to a counselor for struggles like I had,” she said.
At UND, those troubling years became a career inspiration, she said. “I wanted to be in a position, myself, to reach out and help kids with the challenges they face.”
“It was in college that I first became confident I could be really good at a job like that. The whole process of counseling — that it can work, that by sharing with someone else and getting a different perspective, you can find answers — drew me to the field.”
Confirmation, if any was needed, that she’s in the right field came Feb. 6 when the North Dakota School Counseling Association named her High School Counselor of the Year.
The only other Grand Forks counselor to be so recognized is Ginny Blake of Kelly Elementary School who was named School Counselor of the Year Award in 1993 at a time when only one award was given for all three educational levels.
Listening is key
Over her 19 years as counselor, Ripplinger said she has noticed that “kids are pretty much the same. The stressors they’re dealing with are probably pretty similar: emotional issues, peer pressure to use drugs and alcohol, and what to do after high school.”
What has changed is students’ willingness to report bullying and indicators that a classmate may have emotional troubles. As part of a concerted anti-bullying effort, the school district has educated students and teachers to look for warning signs of depression and suicide and, more importantly, what to do when they see them.
“I think we’ve done a fairly good job of that,” Ripplinger said. “Kids are coming forward. Absolutely, that has increased over the years.”
“Listening is key,” she said. “It helps you find the answers that are within all of us. Students usually have the answers but they just don’t know it.”
Prevention is goal
In 2004, after a spate of suicides that shook Grand Forks, Ripplinger, her colleagues and a local parent whose son committed suicide started the TEARS group, short for Together we Educate About the Realities of Suicide. The group educates the community about youth suicides.
“In these cases, you always wonder why and what I could have done better. I’ve found that you’re not going to get an answer,” she said. “If you get stuck on that, it’s not very helpful.”
Instead, she focuses on prevention.
“We do a lot of parent-student counseling. Parents know us and we know them,” she said. “Parents who wouldn’t step foot in a school now do. This is important, even just to establish the relationship.”
Each of the four counselors at Red River handle a quarter of the student body, or about 300 students. They meet with each student at least once a year and parents at least three times a year.
That intentional connection with students and parents sets Grand Forks schools apart from the norm, she said, and promotes a preventative rather than reactive approach to issues that may plague students.
A growing concern for counselors is substance abuse, which Ripplinger said “is definitely up there, if not the number one challenge. It’s an area that needs a lot of attention. We don’t have a lot of tools to respond.”
Red River Principal Kris Arason, who has worked with Ripplinger for 15 years, nominated Ripplinger for the state award. “She has a high degree of personal integrity and a calm demeanor that creates an environment of care and concern for all those around her,” he wrote in the nomination letter.
Another counselor, Amy Martin from Central High School, also nominated Ripplinger, saying “She has the energy and enthusiasm of someone just starting her career.”
Ripplinger gave thanks to her mentors, including former Red River counselors Tom Gabrielsen and Nick Cichy, as well as support from “top to bottom” at the school.
It’s been a rewarding career for her.
“One time I was out in public and a parent approached me and said, ‘You saved my child’s life,’” she said. “It doesn’t get any better than that.”
Reach Knudson at (701) 780-1107; (800) 477-6572, ext. 107; or send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org