By Sasha Chavkin

ProPublica – March 2, 2011

The Department of Education has finally forgiven the student debt of disabled former police officer Tina Brooks—who we featured in our Feb. 13 story about the government’s broken program for forgiving the federal student loans of borrowers who become seriously disabled.

Brooks, who fractured her spine when she fell 15 feet down a steep rock quarry while training for bicycle patrol, had spent six years battling to persuade the Education Department that she was too disabled to work again. The department had repeatedly denied her applications for loan forgiveness, and more than $4,000 in interest had accrued on her debt, even though Social Security had found that she was fully disabled in 2006. (See our Interactive Timeline showing Brooks’ struggles to cancel her loans.)

“I feel like this giant weight has been taken off my shoulders,” Brooks said. “Six years of filling out the forms and hoping it was the right thing and cringing every time I would hear I needed more information and had to go crawling back to my doctor.”

Our investigation—a joint effort with the Center for Public Integrity and the Chronicle of Higher Education—found that although borrowers who develop severe and lasting disabilities are legally entitled to get federal student loans forgiven, the process for deciding who is eligible is dysfunctional, opaque and duplicates similar reviews conducted by other federal agencies. Many borrowers have been denied for unclear reasons, and many others have simply given up.

Following our story, the Education Department pledged to overhaul the program and said it will propose new regulations this summer to make the system work better for disabled borrowers.

For Brooks, the approval of her loan discharge application comes just before the deferments she had received for economic hardship were scheduled to run out. She said she didn’t know how she would have paid the $47,500 that she owed on her loans and had been preparing for another struggle with Education Department bureaucracy when she found out last weekend that her debt had been forgiven.

“No more fighting. No more battling that windmill,” Brooks said. “I am so relieved.”