By Jill Smolowe
Updated February 14, 2011 12:00 PM

Ever since 12th grader Phylicia Barnes disappeared on Dec. 28 while visiting her half sister Deena Barnes in Baltimore, her schoolmates at Union Academy in Monroe, N.C., have sought ways to call attention to her absence. Because purple is Phylicia’s favorite color, most of the 1,000 students at the K-12 charter school sport purple bracelets that read: “Faith, Hope, Love, Phylicia.” Purple bows ring the school’s trees. On Jan. 12, the day Phylicia, a popular honors student, turned 17, students wore purple instead of their usual uniform of khaki pants and polo shirts. “We don’t talk in the past tense,” says guidance counselor Chrissy Rape. “We are optimistic.”

Baltimore police are having a harder time holding on to optimism. Seven search warrants have produced no physical evidence or solid leads. “We suspect something terrible happened,” says police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi. “We’re really banking on tips.” Wide-flung media reports would help-but beyond Baltimore, coverage has been spotty. In a blog post CNN anchor Don Lemon said, “Police speculated that the lack of national media response was because [Phylicia] is African-American.”

The last person believed to have seen her, Michael Johnson, 27, who was Deena’s live-in boyfriend at the time, told a family member that when he left the apartment at 1:30 p.m. Phylicia was napping and planned to go out for food. Later police hounds tracked her scent to a nearby parking lot, “like someone put her in a car,” says her father, Russell Barnes, 47. To hold strong, Phylicia’s mom, Janice Sallis, 44 (who’s been divorced from Barnes since Phylicia was a toddler), appears on TV to discuss the case. “She is a people person,” says the distraught mom. “I was grooming her to the best of her perfection.”