The boys and girls at the after-school center knew the director’s black leather belt by name.
They called it “Mr. Willy.”
As recently as April, the director reportedly kept the belt in a desk drawer.
The director, Roger Jackson, a former National Football League player who is said to have used the belt on occasion to administer corporal punishment, has been the focal point of an investigation into the welfare of children at the east Macon center.
Jackson’s center, the Motivating Youth Foundation, is on Main Street below Fort Hawkins. For more than half a decade it has been a place where 110 or so children -- many from low-income, single-parent homes -- go to play, eat meals and get help with homework in the hours after school.
It is also the place where seven children interviewed by authorities said they have, against state child-care regulations, been spanked by Jackson.
But it is one child’s alleged spanking at the hands of Jackson that has for now forced the center to close its doors.
In May, Jackson, 56, who played five seasons for the Denver Broncos in the mid-1980s, was arrested and briefly jailed on a still-pending misdemeanor battery charge.
That accusation stemmed from an April 22 episode in which the former defensive back allegedly whipped an 8-year-old girl for supposedly misbehaving at her elementary school earlier that day.
The girl, according to authorities, sustained welts and bruises on her buttocks.
Two weeks ago, after temporarily closing the center in May, Jackson’s role there was -- in an agreement with state regulators -- limited for at least the near future to minimal contact with children in the program.
The center is expected to reopen next month when the school year begins.
If Jackson -- who state officials say admitted to giving the 8-year-old girl four licks with the belt -- clears a criminal background check, he will be allowed to spend an hour per month at the center when kids are there.
That hour, however, must be spent in a classroom setting where parents or center employees are present.
Details of what prompted the sanctions emerged in reports and statements from an investigation conducted by the Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning agency, also known as Bright from the Start.
The documents, obtained by The Telegraph through an open records request, reveal an apparent pattern of corporal punishment at the center.
“The investigation substantiated that a serious rule violation occurred which jeopardized the health and safety of children,” one agency official wrote in a report. “This rule violation shows a flagrant abuse, dereliction or deficiency in the management of the center which constitutes shocking intentional misconduct.”
The official, Elisabetta Kasfir, also wrote in a letter notifying the center that its license had been temporarily revoked that “on numerous undetermined dates in 2015, children ages seven to eleven years old were also struck with the leather belt.”
In other documents, however, authorities noted that their investigation unearthed nothing that amounted to child abuse.
The incident involving the 8-year-old girl in April came to light after the girl told a relative she had been spanked. The girl, who’d been wearing jeans, was taken to a doctor. An examination apparently revealed marks on her buttocks. Her mother called the cops.
The girl’s mother, whose name was redacted from the reports, told investigators that upon seeing welts on her daughter she called Jackson on his cellphone.
In a statement to authorities, the mother wrote that she asked Jackson “who the hell do he think he is beating my baby like that and leaving bruises. I also told him that he violated her because she hasn’t ever gotten a whipping like that.”
The mother went on to write that she recorded her conversation with Jackson, who she said apologized and asked her “not to go to DFACS.”
“But I couldn’t let it pass,” the mother wrote. “My baby was innocent and she didn’t have to be done like this.”
The mother claimed her daughter was then humiliated by Jackson. The mother said Jackson told the girl she couldn’t wipe her tears after the spanking, “that she was going to go in the classroom like that so (other kids) can see that I tore your butt up.”
“That’s nasty and low down,” the mother wrote.
Jackson, in a handwritten statement to state investigators, denied sending the girl to her class at the center with the intention of embarrassing her.
“I told her to clean her nose/face up,” he wrote.
Jackson also noted that the girl had been “very disruptive” at her elementary school.
He told the agency’s April Brown, a child care services consultant who investigates complaints, that he disciplined the 8-year-old after learning via text message from the child’s teacher that the child acted up at school during standardized testing.
In his statement, Jackson wrote that girl had “pushed a teacher,” was “kicking tables” and “wouldn’t sit down” and that “she was put out of 4 different classes.”
He said he’d seen a note her schoolteacher had sent home with her about the girl being “very disruptive.”
Jackson wrote that he spanked the girl four times with a belt.
He said that in the past he had helped discipline one of the girl’s brothers.
“I talk with him & the mom,” Jackson wrote. “She stated she need help with her kids in disciple (sic).”
He said he didn’t report the alleged April spanking to state officials as regulations require “because I didn’t think I hadn’t (sic) done anything the mom didn’t want me to do.”
He contended that at least one other worker at the center had heard the 8-year-old girl’s mother “say to me to disciple (sic) or spank her kids” sometime earlier.
The two staffers he named, when interviewed by investigators, had no recollection of such a conversation.
‘I GET IT NOW’
The April allegation came after state officials looked into a complaint of another spanking incident at the center a few years ago. That case, in 2012, was said to involve another 8-year-old child, and Jackson was told by authorities then not to administer corporal punishment.
“I get it now,” Jackson reportedly said at the time.
After the alleged April episode, Brown, the agency consultant who investigated the matter, spoke to parents as well as Jackson, teachers and about a dozen children at the center.
“He denied ‘spanking’ children since our Department intervened previously,” Brown wrote in a report.
A passage in one of the current investigative files added that after the 2012 accusation, “Mr. Jackson knew he was not allowed to use corporal punishment on the children in his facility. ... Nevertheless, he asserted that he gave in to the parents who pleaded with him to help discipline their children.”
One child Brown interviewed this spring, an 8-year-old boy, said kids at the center “get whippings because they are ‘bad’ at school and the teachers tell Mr. Jackson.”
Brown noted that one of the teachers at the center, Mary Wallace, who has worked there about four years, said Jackson and teachers “talk to the children” to discipline them.
“Mr. Jackson pretends to spank the children with a belt,” Wallace reportedly told Brown. “She has never witnessed Mr. Jackson ‘spanking’ any of the children.”
Brown’s report mentioned that Wallace “witnessed Mr. Jackson take children into the hallway and pretend to spank them by hitting himself on the leg.”
Wallace’s daughter, Keisha Wallace, who also works at the center, initially told Brown she had not seen any children hit with a belt.
But when asked about one incident in which a child was supposedly spanked in front of a classroom of other students, Keisha Wallace reportedly said, “I stood in the door and turned my back so I didn’t see Mr. Jackson hit (the child).”
In May, when Brown interviewed some of the children at the center, an 8-year-old boy said Jackson had recently given him six licks with Mr. Willy.
The boy said he’d snatched a pencil from a kid at school. When the boy told his mother about being spanked, Brown noted, the boy’s mother “told him that he deserved it.”
Another boy the same age also told his mother about a recent spanking from Jackson. His mom told the boy he “needed it,” Brown wrote.
Brown also spoke to the mother of a child who had been going to the center for about two years. The mother said that in March she picked up her child at the center and that an employee there told her that the child “had Mr. Willy (put) on him today by Mr. Jackson.”
The mother said she checked the child for marks but saw none. She recalled that when the child entered the program a couple of years earlier that Jackson had told her “if the children step out of line, he would put Mr. Willy on them.”
Brown noted that the mother “assumed that Mr. Jackson was just threatening the children but didn’t know he was hitting them.”
On Friday, Jackson’s attorney, Virgil Adams, said Jackson “got caught between basically trying to help raise the kids and the Bright from the Start rule that says, ‘No, you can’t use corporal punishment.’”
Adams said, “He was really being like the father that these kids don’t have, because not only did he spank them, he rewarded them all kinds of ways.”
He said Jackson has taken students on trips to Florida, taken them out to dinners and to sporting events, including Atlanta Falcons games to meet the players.
“This was truly him being like a parent,” Adams said, “but you got this rule that says you can’t be a parent to the extent that you’re gonna spank.”
As for the state’s reported findings about corporal punishment at the center, Adams said, “You can write the story and say, ‘Oh, these kids say we were getting spanked,’ ... and you can make it seem like, ‘Oh, all this abuse is going on.’ But here’s the thing: Parents spank their kids all day long everywhere, all over this country. And it’s not abuse. It’s the way parents decide to discipline their kids. Some parents don’t believe in that, and that’s fine.”
Adams added: “But with him, these parents gave him permission to spank their kids.”
Adams acknowledged that state regulators have a rule that prohibits corporal punishment.
But, he said, “when you’re sitting there and these parents -- not just parents, but grandparents -- come to you, there is no man in the house at all. ... Mother comes to you or grandmother comes to you and says, ‘I need help. I need help with my son and daughter. I’m afraid that they’re gonna be running the street in gangs or whatever. Mr. Jackson, I bring them to you, you’ve got my consent to do whatever you need to do. And if that means you need to spank them, you can spank them.’ ’’
Adams said Jackson’s center “does damn good work,” and that since 2009 the children who go there have seen marked improvement in school.
He said 98 percent of the kids there make the honor roll compared to only about five of the 110 students who were doing that well when the program began. Sixty of the center’s alums have gone on to attend college, Adams said.
“That’s the other side of the story. ... These kids were not even thinking about college. Since this program, you’ve got first-generation college students coming out.”
For now the Main Street center remains closed, and because of that the summer program there was canceled.
Late last week Adams rode through the neighborhood there at the edge of the city’s iconic Indian Mounds.
“Kids are hanging on the street,” Adams said. “They would otherwise be at the center.”
To contact writer Joe Kovac Jr., call 744-4397 or find him on Twitter@joekovacjr.